Surely there is no more appropriately operatic subject than Cyrano de Bergerac and over the years I had often wondered at the lack of Cyrano operas at least in recorded form. So it has been a treat over the past year to find and listen to the two recordings of Alfano's work now available, and to discover the wonderful recording of Eino Tamberg's delightful version of the story. And it appears there are other operatic Cyranos in the works.
I am delighted to think that Placido Domingo is bring Alfano's Cyrano to the Met stage in May, and that a DVD of Roberto Alagna's performance of this opera in Montpellier, France is due to be released in Europe at the end of February. I sure hope it arrives soon on this side of the ocean. This opera deserves to be heard.
Meanwhile I have listened many times to this 2002 German recording of the Alfano opera, as well as to the older recording made in Turin. Athough not specifically stated, this appears to be a live performance, complete with swords clashing and guns firing. It definitely takes more than one listening to appreciate this music fully - you cannot approach it expecting Puccini or anything like; it is lyrical, but there are no easy melodies, and the music is always moving the drama forward. It is complex and impressionistic; gorgeous on its own terms. The superior sound in this more recent recording is a great plus; the ever-changing orchestral colors are absolutely essential to an appreciation of the music. The music of the balcony scene in particular (the end of the opera's second act) is truly ravishing.
I wish I could honestly say the same of the singing. The singing is good; all the notes are right there, and the singers are emotionally committed to their parts, but the singing is not as lush and mesmerizing as the music merits. I find that heldentenor Roman Sadnik succeeds in creating a believable Cyrano: young, quarrelsome, sardonic, passionate, heroic, and hopelessly in love, but Sadnik is simply not blessed with the size of voice or richness of tone that one would want for this part. I would say, however, that the performance, in choice of interpretation, especially in going for a gentler, less "verismo" approach, makes the most of his strengths.
Much the same can be said of Manuela Uhl's singing of the part of Roxane. The first impression of her voice, with its considerable vibrato, is not one entirely appropriate to a heroine renowned for her beauty. But she makes the most of what she's got, and really comes into her own in the third act (on the battlefield) where she sings "Je lisais, je relisais" with passion and warmth, explaining to Christian that she now loves him for the beauty of his soul. Indeed, I think this moment is for Alfano the true climax and turning point of the opera. When anything has been written at all about this opera, it is usually to fault the ending of the opera for failing to reach the expected dramatic climax at Cyrano's death. I would submit that the opera in this is actually pretty faithful to the spirit of Rostand's play, where the generally serene last act is actually more of an epilogue than an advancement of the action (indeed Rostand has Cyrano actually saying " I have missed everything, even my death."). The music of Cyrano reading his letter aloud to Roxane in the last act is very affecting, and here the performance of the orchestra and and singer would be hard to improve upon. Indeed, the timing and tempi of the whole production are really just right throughout the opera.
Paul McNamara sings the role of Christian with conviction and engages our sympathy in particular in the third act when he asks Cyrano to tell Roxane the truth about the letters, giving an appropriate weight to the moment. The villain of the piece, the Comte de Guiche is sung by Wolfgang Newerla, who comes across not inappropriately as an older man because of the width of his vibrato.
Both the recordings of this opera use the French text adapted by Henri Cain from the Edmond Rostand play. The text stays fairly close to the original in the parts it includes. The opera itself runs about 2 hours, which means that large sections of the play (which usually runs over 3 hours uncut) were eliminated. For some reason Alfano combined the second and third acts of the play into one long act which runs 52 minutes; the other acts being 18, 30, and 20 minutes long, which sort of unbalances the whole. The fact that French is not the native language of the singers is, alas, all too apparent, and the words are sometimes unintelligible without the libretto. Happily, the recording comes with a booklet with lots of notes, and includes the libretto in French and English, although the libretto would have benefited from futher proofreading.
I give this recording 5 stars for the joy it has given me in getting to know this opera, and for the success of the dramatic whole, even though I retain the hope of yet better recorded performances to come!