MILAN — Umberto Giordano’s Fedora appears on the world’s opera stages when a diva glamorous and captivating enough to breathe life into the role of the widowed and wealthy Princess Fedora Romazoff can be found. At La Scala, the sopranos who have essayed the role over the past 75 years include Maria Caniglia, Maria Callas, Mirella Freni, and Maria Guleghina. Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva has now joined this starry list with her smoldering and sumptuously sung Fedora in the current La Scala production.
Giordano based the opera on Victorien Sardou’s play of the same name. Sardou wrote the tale of intrigue and passion for Sarah Bernhardt. Upon seeing her in the role in Naples in 1889, Giordano asked the playwright for permission to use it as the basis for an opera. Sardou refused Giordano twice, only consenting after the success of Andrea Chénier in 1896.
The opera premiered in Milan at the Teatro Lirico Internazionale in 1898 with the 25-year-old Enrico Caruso singing the role of Loris Ipanov. Four years later, the tenor recorded “Amor ti vieta,” whose melody courses through the opera, with the composer at the piano. Other great tenors associated with the role at La Scala are Franco Corelli, Plácido Domingo, and José Carreras.
The opera opens with the murder of Count Vladimiro Andrejevich, whom the recently widowed and wealthy Fedora was to have wed. A missing letter from the Count’s desk adds to the mystery surrounding his death. Suspicion immediately falls upon Loris Ipanoff, who lives nearby but who has fled St. Petersburg.
In exile in Paris, Loris attends a party at Fedora’s house there. Among the other guests are the French diplomat De Siriex, Fedora’s cousin the Countess Olga Sukarev, and her musical protégé, the virtuoso Polish pianist Boleslao Lazinski. Desperately in love with Fedora, Loris confesses that it was he who killed Andrejevich out of anger and jealousy, as Loris’ wife Wanda and Andrejevich were lovers. Loris produces the letter he took from the Count’s desk that provides proof of the liaison. Intent on revenge, Fedora has written to Russia denouncing his brother, but now finds herself falling in love with Loris.
In the final act, Fedora and Loris are living in a chalet in the mountains of Switzerland. Loris’ hopes rise when he learns he has been pardoned and can return to Russia. Fedora’s denunciation, however, has led to the imprisonment and death of Loris’ brother and subsequently his mother, who died from grief upon receiving the news of her son’s demise. Revealing that she is the woman responsible for Loris’ brother’s death, Fedora takes poison hidden in the crucifix around her neck and begs for Loris’ forgiveness as she is dying.
For the La Scala production, Italian director and screenwriter Mario Martone updated the action to the present day. Instead of a sumptuous palace in St. Petersburg, the first act unfolds in a sleek, stark high-rise building. Floor-to-ceiling glass windows not only afford views of the glittering lights of the city below but also Loris’ apartment above that of Andrejevich. Equally stylish and modern, Fedora’s home in Paris is nestled inside a grove of trees. The final scene opens against a backdrop of the Alps, which are instantly transformed into the apartment where Fedora commits suicide.
In stripping away the period atmosphere, Martone was free to focus solely on the drama. There were some incongruities between libretto and the visuals, such as when Fedora enters Andrejevich’s apartment and sings of the beautiful flowers and charming knicknacks. None are to be seen, but there is a large-screen TV tuned to a soccer game.
The role of Fedora is a perfect fit for Yoncheva’s voice and keen sense of drama. Visually and vocally, the soprano was sultry and imperious. From Fedora’s first aria, “Quanti fior … Ed ecco il suo ritratto,” in which she expresses her love for Andrejevich, until her final outpouring of remorse and anguish over her role in the deaths of Loris’ brother and mother, she sang with exceptionally rich sound.
Roberto Alagna, clearly a house favorite, was also making his role debut as Loris. The loudest ovation of the evening followed his full-voiced rendering of “Amore ti vieta.” Alagna was a dashing, impassioned Loris whose stage presence and charisma put him in a league of his own.
Baritone George Petean was a solid De Siriex, who seductively sings of the competing charms of Russian women (adorable yet hostile) in “La donna russa è femmina due volte.” As the Countess Olga Sukarev, Serena Gamberoni sparkled vocally as she countered with “Eccone un altro più somigliante ancor,” in which she compares French men to the champagne produced by the Widow Cliquot. As Gamberoni sang, she was surrounded by gentlemen with bottles bearing the familiar orange label.
Conductor Marco Armiliato led a soaring, thrilling account of Giordani’s melody-laden score. The ever-present sinister secret agents lent an atmosphere redolent of a murder mystery, but it was the music that supplied the drama in this performance. The La Scala Orchestra responded to Armiliato’s every wish, playing with energy, brilliance, and transparency.
A few boos and jeers were heard when the production team came out for their bows, but they soon faded. La Scala’s Fedora was a musical triumph, which this most discerning of audiences made clear.