In no region of the performing arts is the force of tradition more powerful than in opera. “Tradition” at the Los Angeles Opera, as demonstrated more often than not since the company’s founding in 1986, includes devoting its opening-night offering to showcasing the prodigious vocal chords of its star tenor, principal guest conductor and artistic adviser, Placido Domingo. Nine times in 12 seasons, Domingo has treated first-nighters to a repertory consisting of old favorites (“La Boheme”) and rediscoveries (“Stiffelio”); “Fedora,” this year’s offering, belongs in the latter category. It won’t be remembered as one of his highlights.
Umberto Giordano’s “Fedora” dates from 1898, the year also of Puccini’s “Tosca.” They share a musical language and a dramatic outlook: lush, soaring orchestration; passionate lyric lines more designed to show off great voices than to underscore the story; a welcome tendency toward concision. “Fedora’s” one familiar aria, the tenor’s “Amor ti vieta,” lasts barely two minutes.
But those two minutes, as delivered by Domingo on opening night, are the main reason to dredge up “Fedora” — at the Metropolitan Opera last year (where it had languished since 1925), and now in Los Angeles. The plot — enemies turned lovers, confidences betrayed, death as the ultimate problem-solver — has worked since the days of Romeo and Juliet.
Giordano’s tight little opera, based on a play by renowned melodramatist Victorien Sardou, varies the pace only in that the protagonists are Russians, and this allows for a lick of Slavic-sounding harmonies now and then. There are other distinctive touches, however. A long scene of recrimination and declaration, for the Princess Fedora and her newfound lover, Count Loris, plays out against a background of piano music; the heroine’s death is accompanied offstage by a shepherd boy’s folk song.
What is lacking in “Fedora,” however, is exactlywhat makes Puccini’s shabby melodrama work: a sense of character identity conveyed through the music. You get the feeling that the music is there as filler, that most of it — for all its orchestral variety — might work just as well for an entirely different story line. There isn’t a real operatic ensemble (think of “La Boheme”) and there isn’t a Good Tune to take home; you remember the incandescent splendor of the Domingo sound, but not the music he sang.
Maria Ewing, the evening’s Fedora, may have been ill-advised to take on the role; as always, she cut a spectacular figure onstage, but the high-lying notes of the role found her on insecure terrain. The opera’s roster of stock villains was capably handled by Richard Stilwell and L.A. Opera stalwart Louis Lebherz; Sir Edward Downes, in his second L.A. Opera stint after the 1995 “Stiffelio” (also with Domingo, of course) moved the music along with commendable briskness.
The tricky production — handsome backdrops of magisterial scenery, and a slow turntable downstage, perhaps too frequently employed, that made some of the action seem like the passing of clouds — came from Milan’s La Scala, restaged here by the Royal Opera’s David Edwards, with Alan Burrett’s lighting creating the ravishing effect of silhouettes moving in a twilight world. But silhouettes, by definition, have no faces; despite the L.A. Opera’s best shot at “Fedora,” the same can be said of the work itself.