Monday, May 23, 2005

Two roads

Edmond de Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac is a landmark work of popular culture. That its eponymous authority-defying pseudo-folk-hero has fought and wooed across countless silver screens is only fitting, as Rostand was a Hollywood forerunner. A cool -- for what is panache but a pre-jazz rendering of "cool"? -- outsider-hero, some violence, a melancholy love angle: it's classic Hollywood formula, whether via auteur or hack.

Insofar as Cyrano was Rostand's response to the crisis of his stage's realism, Franco Alfano's opera-house version came in a similar context. But while Cyrano-the-opera was part of a series of his works more-or-less repudiating verisimo, Alfano took an aesthetic road far from Rostand's. The music isn't flamboyant and popular, instead sharing sonic language with late Puccini (the quieter bits of Turandot), Debussy, and other not-quite-modernist composers of the interwar period. The score has many details of interest but no big tunes. Not bad, nor revelatory.

Yet as responsive as Alfano succeeds in being to each particular turn of the text, words and music are still fundamentally mismatched. The score -- for all its subtle virtues -- lacks panache, disappointing the Rostand fan, while the sub-Hollywood bathos at libretto's end strikes a note largely (and happily) absent from the operatic stage. For similar reasons, Plácido Domingo -- the closest thing to a walking institution in today's opera world -- is grossly miscast. Even if solidity didn't define his acting as much as it does his singing (though it does), it's quite impossible at this point in his career and ubiquity to see Domingo as any sort of swashbuckling pop hero. Roberto Alagna, I think, would've much better fit the role -- though, or perhaps because he couldn't possibly have gotten the Met to stage such a piece.

In some parallel Alex Ross-inspired world, popular formula in high-cultural clothing and modernism-lite (the two roads that diverged in a fin-de-siècle wood) could combine to sublime effect. But that world isn't one that intersects the Rostand-Alfano-Met-Domingo product we saw this month. This combination was sucessful in parts -- but, as a whole, a mistake.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.