Composer: Franco Alfano
Conductor: Marco Amiliato
Librettist: Henri Cain
Producer/Director: Francesca Zambello
Roberto Alagna: Cyrano de Bergerac
Jennifer Rowley: Roxanne
Atalla Ayan: Christian
Juan Jesus Rodriguez: Count de Guiche
Roberto de Candia: Ragueneau
Michael Todd Simpson: Carbon
David Pittsinger: Le Bret
As a typical product of the French education system, and of French culture in general, I grew up perpetually exposed to the art of the written word. Consequently, I spent many years reading many books and attending many plays, and one of my most vivid memories of those times is a production of Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac featuring the magnificent Jacques Weber in the title role in Lyon back in the 1980s. Watching one of France's most prominent stage actors virtuosically embody the hero of what has remained my all-time favorite French play made me turn down any subsequent opportunity to see it again. You just don't mess with perfection.
Enter Roberto Alagna and Cyrano de Bergerac (the opera) by Italian composer Franco Alfano, whose main claim to fame is to have reluctantly and not entirely satisfactorily – But then again, nobody should be expected to conquer the impossible – finished up Puccini's Turandot. Alagna championed the obscure opera for a long time and eventually performed it with a little help from his brothers in Montpellier in 2003. On this side of the pond, Placido Domingo championed it and eventually performed it at the Met in 2005.
When I saw it included in the current Met season, I decided to find out what it was all about and got a ticket for one of the only four performances. Therefore, last Saturday, after having enthusiastically fulfilled my French citizen duty early morning, I just as enthusiastically stepped into the Met's filled-to-the-brim Family Circle early afternoon for further bonding with my French heritage.
There are many reasons why Cyrano de Bergerac seems ready-made for an opera treatment: An engaging story, well-defined characters, and a compelling combination of visceral emotions, action-packed sword fights and humorous touches. I suspected that Rostand's exceptionally gorgeous and deliciously witty poetic language would not completely survived and I was right (Why, oh why wasn't the fabulous nose monologue turn into a show-stopping aria?), but there are sacrifices to be accepted when going from one medium to another, so be it.
The hero of the afternoon in more ways than one was popular French tenor Roberto Alagna. Not only has he been instrumental in bringing this undeservedly neglected opera to the stage, but he was also wonderful in a role that fits him like a glove. Fearless duelist, eloquent poet, quick wit and hopeless romantic, Alagna was a memorable Cyrano, the ugly man who sacrificed everything for the woman he loved. Clearly relishing every minute of singing the irresistibly complex role, particularly at ease with the admittedly still attractive French libretto, he sang his heart out with refreshing confidence and ardor.
From swashbuckling swordsman to brilliant man of letters, always displaying impeccable comic timing, this Cyrano never lost his signature panache. He was, however, truly at his best in the heart-breaking balcony scene, during which, passionately in love yet resigned to his fate, he finally got to declare his intense feelings to an unsuspecting Roxanne in the cover of darkness, and then selflessly helped his undeserving rival enjoy the ultimate reward. Lastly, it is a safe bet to assume that his dying in her arms in the opera's final scene did not leave many audience members indifferent.
The object of his affection, his beautiful cousin Roxanne, was winningly sung by young American soprano Jennifer Rowley, who made a remarkable (almost) Met debut for the occasion. Although by default not the most discerning person ever (Must be the blond factor), her Roxanne could nevertheless be a willful and sharp woman at times. Blessed with a voice that effortlessly went from youthful joie de vivre to profound dismay, Rowley had the acting and singing chops necessary to bring it all home, and she repeatedly did.
The object of her affection, unquestionably good-looking but hopelessly inarticulate Christian, was persuasively sung by young Brazilian tenor Atalla Ayan. Being mostly known for not being able to utter a word worth-remembering is a pretty thankless role for a singer, but Ayan took it in stride and was completely convincing as the young cadet who is genuinely in love with Roxanne, but does not have the the slightest communication skill to express it. Singing artlessly and vigorously, not shying away from the comical aspect of his shortcomings, Ayan was an endearing Christian.
Smaller parts were unfailingly well cast too, starting with baritone Juan Jesus Rodriguez, who was an impressively nuanced Count de Guiche, baritone Roberto de Candia, whose pastry chef Ragueneau brought some always welcome comic relief, baritone Michael Todd Simpson was a solid Carbon and bass baritone David Pittsinger a steadfast Le Fret.
As usual, the chorus distinguished themselves by being conspicuously present or easily blending in, depending on the scene. The male singers got a chance, and resolutely grabbed it, to make a powerful impression as mournful down-on-their-luck soldiers facing a near-certain death in Act III.
The production was traditional, but in the best way possible. The various sets were attractive, if not particularly imaginative, and the period costumes were sumptuous and colorful. The carefree existence of the first two acts was highlighted by the generally bright and warm lights while the somber atmosphere of the last two acts was subtly conveyed with muted colors and hazy glow. The Met’s cavernous stage can sometimes be a problem for directors, but Francesca Zambello’s 2005 production filled it very efficiently.
We thankfully got to hear the original French version of the opera, and the music had an alluring natural elegance and a nuanced Debussyan impressionism to it. On the other hand, some hot-blooded italianness could not help but come out too now and then. While the score did not contain any spontaneously hummable tunes, it did have some emotionally charged arias that splendidly, if not always very subtly, emphasize the on-going conflicts. Not an undisputed masterpiece by any means, but still a worthy vehicle for the gripping story.
Back in the pit, Met regular Marco Amiliato kept things going at a good pace while leaving the singers plenty of room to bring their characters to life. The outstanding MET Orchestra has proven many times that they can handle anything, and they did it again on Saturday afternoon, steadily supporting the drama unfolding on the stage with plenty of vivid colors, unwavering attention to details… and, in true Cyrano fashion, unwavering panache.