The mood was festive, the audience large and enthusiastic, for the gala premiere on New Year’s Eve of a rare new production of Umberto Giordano’s lovably preposterous potboiler “Fedora” at the Metropolitan Opera.
The soprano Sonya Yoncheva and the tenor Piotr Beczala, playing aristocrats locked in a series of betrayals and counter-betrayals, passionately loved and raged; the conductor Marco Armiliato and the Met’s orchestra brought restrained silkiness out of the pit; David McVicar’s staging was bustling and handsome. A good time was had by all.
But I couldn’t quiet a tiny voice of dread in me. Not about the celebratory scene on Saturday evening, but about what it will be like when the Met tries to get its money’s worth out of the new production and revives it, with far less marketing and press coverage and quite possibly a less starry cast. Who will be in the audience for that “Fedora” in a season or two or three?
The question has extra urgency after the coal that arrived in the Met’s stocking the day after Christmas, when the company announced that weak ticket sales and recalcitrant donors as the pandemic drags on would force it to raid its endowment to the tune of $30 million — a full tenth of the fund’s value — and to cut 10 percent of its planned performances next season.
As a silver lining, the Met said at the same time that it would immediately expand its presentations of contemporary operas, which have been outselling some of the classics.
But in truth, what has been selling at the house is what gets promotional resources and media exposure: new productions, be they of brand-new pieces or 125-year-old ones like “Fedora.” Without that kind of publicity, attendance was particularly dire this fall for revivals of masterpieces that are hardly obscure but not quite “Aida,” like Mozart’s “Idomeneo,” Britten’s “Peter Grimes” and Verdi’s “Don Carlo.” This could very well be the fate of “Fedora,” too, when it’s brought back.
There is a real audience for the Met, as sold-out runs of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” and “The Hours” have proved. Just not so much for a pillar of opera-going: hearing repertory pieces as they evolve, year in and year out, with different casts. It is, sad to say, an ever-smaller group of people who care to see “La Traviata” subtly but unmistakably transform with each new Violetta — or “Fedora” with each new Fedora.
That is why the 10 percent trim in performances for next season is a portent of what’s to come. The Met’s long-term future may well consist of seasons with significantly fewer performances of significantly fewer titles, and a greater proportion of new stagings to returning productions.
That model, which would edge the Met closer to an annual event like the Salzburg Festival from its repertory-house tradition, may yield some strong artistic results. But the transition to it will involve a tumultuous rethinking of the company’s costs, and therefore its labor contracts, as well as fewer dismally selling revivals like this season’s “Idomeneo,” “Peter Grimes” and “Don Carlo” — all of which were excellent and all of which are integral to the Met’s responsibility to its art form.
Even if this “Fedora” is never revived, we will at least have had a sensitive, spirited run of a work that last came to the Met in the 1996-97 season, when it was a vehicle for the great diva Mirella Freni’s full-production farewell to the company.
“Fedora” is about as opera as opera gets. The title character (Yoncheva) is a Russian princess in the late 19th century who swears vengeance after her fiancé is shot to death. The plot, of course, thickens. It turns out that the killer, Count Loris Ipanov (Beczala), did not commit the crime for political reasons, as everyone assumed. (The dark specter here, as in Dosteovsky’s “Demons” and the Coen brothers’s “The Big Lebowski,” is nihilists.) No, Fedora’s man was making it with Loris’s wife, setting off a jealous gunfight; once that is revealed, enmity between princess and count turns to lust.
This being a tear-jerker, their brief idyll is smashed when her prematurely sent letter of accusation inadvertently results in the death of Loris’s brother and mother, leading to his ferocious condemnation of Fedora and her overhasty suicide by the poison she keeps in a cross around her neck. (Don’t you?)
The play on which this dead-serious farrago is based was written by Victorien Sardou, the reigning French master of theatrical sensation, who was also the source for Puccini’s “Tosca” around the same time. Giordano, Puccini and other Italian composers who came of age in the 1880s and ’90s have become known to posterity under the catchall “verismo,” a term which came to suggest a style of sumptuous orchestral complexity and moment-by-moment emotional responsiveness, with arias and other numbers that emerge and recede organically rather than formally — at least compared to Italian opera as it had been before — but with a melodic lushness that set them apart from Wagner.
The gawkier sibling to its better-known predecessor, Giordano’s “Andrea Chénier,” “Fedora” is not a perfect piece. The roles other than Fedora and Loris are thoroughly unrewarding. The high spirits with which Giordano opens the second and third acts, for all-too-obvious contrast with the intense drama to come, drag on too long. There is an aria about Veuve Clicquot champagne, and an aria about bicycles, both thin.
But for all its absurdity, the pairing of Fedora and Loris can catch fire with committed singers. It goes without saying that this can be an opportunity for wild-eyed scenery chewing. As fun as that can be, it is to Yoncheva, Beczala, Armiliato and McVicar’s credit that a sense of classiness and dignity prevailed on Saturday.
Sometimes too much. For some of the opera Yoncheva seemed a bit, well, collected amid all the shattering revelations; nothing really seemed to faze her. And her high register tended to lack not volume but richness, so her climactic exclamations were less than harrowing.
But she had far more vocal presence here than in her pale turn as Élisabeth in Verdi’s “Don Carlos” (in French) at the Met last season. Her dark-hued, resinous, trembling-vibrato soprano has an inherent morbidity, haunting in both Fedora’s longer lyrical lines and speech-like parlando. She is superbly articulate even in tiny moments: Near the end, she sees the tragedy that is unfolding and tells her friends, practically murmuring, “Andate, andate pure” (“Go, just go”).
After audibly warming up through his brief aria “Amor ti vieta,” long beloved of tenors, Beczala sang with his usual stylish ardor. Among a sprawling cast, the robust baritone Lucas Meachem (as the diplomat De Siriex) and the bright soprano Rosa Feola (Countess Olga) did their best in bland supporting parts. Bryan Wagorn, a veteran of the Met’s music staff, had a turn as the Chopinesque pianist who plays at a party as Fedora and Loris confront one another.
Armiliato’s conducting was notable for bringing out the score’s dynamic range; much of this orchestral performance was subtle and delicate, rather than the blaring blood-and-guts that is still the verismo stereotype.
This is somehow McVicar’s 13th Met production since 2009, and its main concept is a straightforward logistical one: Each of the three acts — the plot moves from St. Petersburg to Paris to the Swiss Alps — expands the grand, airy set (by Charles Edwards) a chunk further upstage. As in McVicar’s staging of another verismo-era work, Francesco Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur,” which opened at the Met on New Year’s Eve four years ago, there is a suggestion of the blending of domestic and theatrical spaces. His most idiosyncratic interpolation here is the pale figure of Fedora’s murdered fiancé, who wanders around haunting her; whatever.
The color scheme of the costumes (by Brigitte Reiffenstuel), largely black and white, unfortunately restricts what should be a smashing palette range for Fedora’s gowns, though Yoncheva looked splendid in the cinched-waist, heavy-bustle cuts.
In the first act, she wears a dramatic raven-color dress, with a many-diamonded tiara. Diva entrances rarely get the old-fashioned reception at the Met these days, so to hear the audience erupt in applause as she first came on was delightful enough to momentarily still that tiny voice of dread in my head about the company’s future. At least for the couple of seconds it took for her to stride across the stage, cool and confident, basking in the ovation, it was New Year’s Eve, it was one of those works that warms any true opera lover’s heart, and all was right with the world.
Through Jan. 28 at the Metropolitan Opera, Manhattan; metopera.org.