Tuesday 29 August 2023

Follies of youthful passion: Umberto Giordano's Fedora at IF Opera

Giordano: Fedora - Charne Rochford, Sky Ingram - IF Opera (Photo: LAIMA)
Giordano: Fedora - Charne Rochford, Sky Ingram - IF Opera (Photo: LAIMA)

Giordano: Fedora; Sky Ingram, Charne Rochford, Lorena Paz Nieto, Alexey Gusev, director: John Wilkie, Bristol Ensemble, conductor: Oliver Gooch; IF Opera at Belcombe Court

A young cast and an admirably lucid production bring out the passion and melodic charms of Giordano's thriller

Umberto Giordani's 1898 opera Fedora doesn't get out often enough. You can find plenty off reason why it shouldn't work, but those sort of criteria apply equally to operas firmly in the canon, and there is plenty of music in the piece of a quality to make an spending an evening in the theatre with Fedora a rewarding experience.

At IF Opera, director John Wilkie [see my recent interview with John] gave Fedora (seen 26 August 2023) a good rethinking. Conducted by Oliver Gooch (IF Opera's artistic director) with the Bristol Ensemble in the pit, the production featured Sky Ingram as Fedora, Charne Rochford as Loris, Lorena Paz Nieto as Olga and Alexey Gusev as De Siriex.

Presented in period, with elegant designs by Alisa Kalyanova, Wilkie's production told a complex story with a lovely clarity, aided by a young cast who were rather closer in age to their characters than usually happens in this opera. Essentially, it became about the follies of youthful passion. 

Based on a play by French playwright Victorien Sardou, Arturo Colauti's libretto lacks the elegance, clarity and imagination that Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa's libretto for Puccini's Tosca has, another opera based on Sardou play. Colauti's compression of Sardou's four-act play means that important plot elements get mentioned in passing and key moments are not developed. Neither protagonist is an easily lovable character, Fedora is driven by a thirst for revenge, and Loris has killed her lover. The compression means we never really get to know them adequately. After Act One of Puccini's Tosca, we know a lot about the three principal characters. After Act One of Fedora we haven't even met Loris, and when we do, in Act Two, much of his declaration of love for Fedora takes place off stage. 

All this makes a considerable challenge for performers. The success of IF Opera's production lay in the clarity with which John Wilkie unfolded the drama and the characters' motivations, and the passion both principals brought to their roles.

Giordano: Fedora - Dominick Felix, Henry Grant Kerswell, Rebecca Afonwy-Jones, Andres Presno, Sky Ingram - IF Opera (Photo: LAIMA)
Giordano: Fedora - Dominick Felix, Henry Grant Kerswell, Rebecca Afonwy-Jones, Andrés Presno, Sky Ingram - IF Opera (Photo: LAIMA)    

Looking tall and elegant in a series of handsome period gowns, Sky Ingram brought out the youthful fervour of Fedora's thirst for revenge, a factor that drives the opera. That she was deluded about her late lover Vladimir (killed by Loris just as the opera opens) was made very clear, rendering her revenge all the more poignant. Ingram made Fedora zing, combining elegance and passion, rising superbly both to her declaration of love for Loris in Act Two and the terrific death scene at the end of Act Three.

Any tenor singing Loris has big shoes to fill, the first Loris was Enrico Caruso. Charne Rochford brought an intensity of passion to the role from the outset. A relatively short role, Rochford made every moment count, singing with throughout with vibrant emotion and warm tone. He brought off the character's one short aria with style, but it was the progression of passionate emotions that counted right to the final scene when he and Ingram's Fedora goaded each other to the tragic end.

Lorena Paz Nieto made a delightful Olga. To a certain extent she is light relief, a foil to Fedora's darker passions. So, in Act Two, Paz Nieto dazzled in her charming aria comparing a man to Veuve Clicquot! And in Act Three, she hymned bicycling. All done with wit and style. In a way, the relationship between Fedora and Olga reminded me of Puccini's La Rondine, 20 years in the future. Which makes you think.

Giordano: Fedora - Alexey Gusev, Lorena Paz Nieto, Henry Grant Kerswell - IF Opera (Photo: LAIMA)
Giordano: Fedora - Alexey Gusev, Lorena Paz Nieto, Henry Grant Kerswell - IF Opera (Photo: LAIMA)

Alexey Gusev impressed as De Siriex, his role developing from flirting with Olga to something far more serious. Gusev impressed in his Act Two showpiece, then delivered his dramatic news about the death of Loris' family in Act Three with dignity, really growing into the role.

Aidan Smith made a strong Gretch, the policeman tasked with investigating Vladimir's death. The other roles were all sharply drawn, each singer etching a character in a few lines with Dan D'Souza as the coachman Cirillo, Rebecca Afonwy Jones as the page Dmitri plus Andrés Presno as Désiré, Emyr Wyn Jones as Lorek, Dominick Felix as Sergio and Baron Rouvel, and Henry Grant Kerswell as Nicola. The boy treble, Oliver Jenkins, made a confident peasant boy. 

Assistant conductor, Mark Austin played the on-stage piano in Act Two. And example of the imaginative scoring, here the guests listened to a piano recital but we heard the piano as accompaniment to Loris and Fedora's crucial duet where he starts to explain the circumstances of Vladimir's death.

Giordano clearly took care with the score, giving each act a different tint, so that the second act in Paris was inflected both by the waltz and the piano, whilst the third act had a suitably Swiss feel to the music. The orchestra played a reduction by Tony Burke, but under Oliver Gooch's sympathetic directing they successfully created the feel of a larger ensemble. Only occasionally did one feel that lack of sheer numbers.

Giordano: Fedora - Dominick Felix, Lorena Paz Nieto - IF Opera (Photo: LAIMA)
Giordano: Fedora - Dominick Felix, Lorena Paz Nieto - IF Opera (Photo: LAIMA)

The whole production made a terrific case for Fedora, showing that with the right director and a sympathetic cast, the work's subtleties can come through. It makes you regret that Giordano did not work with a better librettist.

Fun Fact: At the premiere of Sardou's play Fedora in Paris, Sara Bernhardt in the title role wore a soft felt hat...

Giordano: Fedora
Fedora - Sky Ingram
Loris - Charne Rochford
Olga - Lorena Paz Nieto
De Siriex - Alexey Gusev
Désiré - Andrés Presno
Dimitri - Rebecca Afonwy Jones
Gretch - Aidan Smith
Lorek - Emyr Wyn Jones
Cirillo/Boroff - Dan D'Souza
Sergio/Baron Rouvel - Deominick Felix
Nicola - Henry Grant Kerswell
Peasant Boy - Oliver Jenkins
Lazinski - Mark Austin
Vladimir - Luke Howe
Chorus - Lara Marie Muller, Elizabeth Roberts, Annie George, Henry Grant Kerswell

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  • There is a lot going on in what is a relatively short opera: John Wilkie on directing Giordano's opera Fedora at IF Opera with a fantastic young cast interview
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