Arthur Laurents’ 1977 screenplay for “The Turning Point” profiles an aging ballerina who can no longer compete with the young dancers, and so chooses to perform a ballet that allows her to wear a long dress and “act up a storm.” At a similar juncture in his illustrious career, Placido Domingo has resurrected the operatic rarity “Cyrano de Bergerac” by Franco Alfano, and if the famed tenor doesn’t exactly deliver a tempest of histrionics, he offers up one of his most committed portrayals. He also gets to wear a long nose.
First performed in 1936, “Cyrano” pretty much disappeared from world-class exposure after a 1954 La Scala production starring Ramon Vinay. What more could Domingo, at age 65 or thereabouts, ask for in a baggage-free vehicle that offers almost no comparison to past great interpreters of the title role? Even Laurents didn’t take out that kind of career insurance for his terp diva.
In 1983, the Met dusted off another seldom-performed Italian opera, Riccardo Zandonai’s “Francesca da Rimini,” again with Domingo but in a production tailored to the fading talents of soprano Renata Scotto. The Zandonai opera played only one more season, and then, like the diva it was supposed to showcase, slipped into oblivion. “Cyrano,” already skedded for next season, might follow a similar performance trajectory if not for the fact it is a co-production with Covent Garden, which shares the bill.
Friday night’s Met premiere of “Cyrano” brought out at least one legit notable. Disney’s Thomas Schumacher came to see the work of director Francesca Zambello, whom he has enlisted to make her Broadway debut on the upcoming stage version of “The Little Mermaid.” They must be happy at the House of Mouse.
Unlike some of her recent stagings, Zambello here eschewed any tendency to radically deconstruct or reinterpret the text, which closely follows Edmond Rostand’s story of a lovesick poet. Instead, the director’s faithful, romantic rendering impresses with an insightful attention to detail that expands or comments upon the action. (Christian’s slightly buffoonish delivery of the ladder in the balcony scene is Zambello at her devious best.) And under her direction, it is doubtful the peripatetic Domingo, who often gives the impression his body is onstage at the Met but his mind is back in Europe, has ever more thoroughly inhabited a role.
Two seasons ago with “Les Troyens,” Zambello dazzled with her ability to take dozens of dancers and choristers and turn them into one throbbing, intensely choreographed mob. Here, she proves equally adept at taking crowds — from too many cooks in a kitchen to soldiers on a battlefield — and rendering everyone onstage an individual.
In his belated Met debut, Broadway’s favorite fight director, Rick Sordelet, presents some of the best swordplay ever seen on this stage. And when it comes to the grand romantic gesture with no fuss, set designer Peter J. Davison (“Democracy,” “Copenhagen”) is clearly the antidote to the Met’s long-favored emperor of excess, Franco Zeffirelli. From the theater mouse’s view of an opera house to the intricate play of Parisian streets to the severe austerity of Roxane’s convent, Davison offers tableaux, bathed in Natasha Katz’s light, that always enhance the action, never draw attention away from it.
Sadly, only on occasion does Alfano’s music deserve such inspired attention. Roxane’s battleground declaration of love (“Tiens … on a tire!”) in Act Three and Cyrano’s letter reading (“Oh, mais je m’en vais…”) at opera’s end are standouts. But elsewhere — and at two hours and 40 minutes, there’s a lot of elsewhere — Alfano shows he was cursed with more taste than his talent could handle. If only he had been a little trashier, like Cilea or Leoncavallo, and delivered the hit-tune structure of set pieces. Instead, he takes the more modern Germanic approach of sung-through. (On a couple of occasions, the Met audience mistakenly broke up the music with applause, leaving the poor singers to blink in confusion at sympathetic conductor Marco Armiliato.) Passages begin promisingly, only to get lost on their way to a contrived and invariably bombastic conclusion.
Although Domingo delivers one of his most committed perfs as an actor, it’s doubtful Alfano’s music ever would have been ideal for his conscientious if slightly muted approach to musical interpretation. “You have to go beyond the music,” Renata Scotto once said of opera’s many less-than-great composers.
A master of nuance, Scotto would have known precisely what to do with Alfano’s music. Fortunately, so does this production’s Roxane, Sondra Radvanovsky, who uses an arsenal of interpretive skills to prop up the music whenever it sags. Like Scotto, she doesn’t have a conventionally beautiful voice, and sounds in many ways like a throwback to Magda Oliver, another verismo great who possessed the same rapid vibrato and dryness of tone that somehow gave proper shape to any phrase.