Cyrano de Bergerac, SF Opera

Written by:
Suzanne Weiss
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Ainhoa Arteta as Roxane and Plácido Domingo as the title character in “Cyrano de Bergerac”
Photo by Cory Weaver

Cyrano de Bergerac

Opera by Franco Alfano
Libretto by Henri Cain after the play by Edmond Rostand
Directed by Petrika Ionesco
Conducted by Patrick Fournillier
San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House
Oct. 24-Nov. 12, 2010
(See video clip below.)

Domingo wins it but only by a nose. That’s not because of any depreciable diminishment of the great singer’s vocal powers in the seventh decade of life but just because everything else about this production—set and lighting design (Petrika Ionesco); costumes (Lili Kendaka); fight (Jonathan Rider) and dance (Lawrence Pech) choreography; and the rest of the cast—is so uncommonly good. The music, ably conducted by Patrick Fournillier, may be the least of these, lying somewhere between Puccini-romantic and modernism—pleasant but not particularly memorable. But the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Composer Franco Alfano, best known as the man who completed “Turandot” after Puccini’s death in 1924, brought out “Cyrano,” based on the iconic 1897 Edmond Rostand play, in 1936. Unfortunately the opera never achieved the popularity of the original and rarely has been performed. The Met revived it several years ago as a vehicle for Plácido Domingo, and the famed Spanish tenor performed it again in a new production for the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris last year. That is the one that is on the stage in San Francisco. Lucky for the city beside the Bay; not only does it have a winning World Series team but an opera that positively knocks it out of the park.

The story is a familiar one, having been portrayed onstage by many of the world’s greatest actors and, onscreen, by such as Jose Ferrer, Gérard Depardieu and Steve Martin, with a few in between. The title character, a proud Frenchman from Gascony, is a poet, swordsman, soldier and wit with a heart almost as big as the nose which precedes him “by a quarter of an hour.” (Poor Cyrano; he would have been a prime candidate for rhinoplasty had it existed in his day. But then we would have been robbed of a swell story). Cyrano (Domingo) is hopelessly in love with his beautiful cousin Roxane (an appropriately beautiful Ainhoa Arteta, who has a clarion soprano of matching loveliness). She, in turn, although sought by many, has succumbed to the charms of the handsome Christian (Thiago Arancam in a powerful San Francisco debut), a cadet in Cyrano’s regiment, and asks Cyrano to protect him. Roxane, like her cousin, prizes poetry but Christian can’t find the words to woo. So Cyrano sets up a collaboration, putting his own words into Christian’s mouth with often hilarious, but ultimately successful, results.

There are few arias or set pieces in the work but those few are memorable. The most arresting is the famed “balcony scene” at the end of the second act when Christian woos Roxane with Cyrano feeding him lines until, overcome by impatience and longing, Cyrano dons Christian’s cloak and hat and, for the first time, speaks for himself. Musically the scene matches Rostand’s passionate lyricism and the ensuing duet is gorgeous. Unfortunately for our hero, it ends with Roxane in Christian’s arms.

Another musical highlight comes in the next act as the Gascon soldiers, besieged and starving, sing of their homeland. Roxane soon follows, inspired to cross the enemy lines by daily love letters (written by Cyrano) bringing food and singing a beautiful aria expressing her love for Christian, now her husband and soon to die in the fray. And then there is the heartbreaking final scene when the widowed and cloistered Roxane discovers the truth and finds that she returns Cyrano’s love— too late.

Librettist Henri Cain has cut some of the fat (and the fun) from the play but has left us enough laughter and tears to satisfy everybody but the purists (like myself) who memorized whole swathes of Rostand in college and remember the exact lines to this day. Among the characters he has kept are the lovable pastry cook Ragueneau, well-sung by Brian Mulligan, and Cyrano’s loyal friend Le Bret (Timothy Mix). Stephen Powell was the haughty Comte de Guiche, Christian’s rival for Roxane, and Lester Lynch was Carbon, the captain of the regiment. But Domingo, of course, is the draw. Still fit and in good voice at 70, the iconic tenor swashbuckles his way through the opera with minimal movement and maximum emotion. It is enough.

The production is uncommonly beautiful to behold. The opening scene, in a theater where Cyrano fights a duel while improvising a poem about his nose, is replete with ballet dancers, flying chariots and special effects that mimic those that would have been used in the mid-17th century. The next scene, in Ragueneau’s bakery, is no less spectacular, with copper pots boiling and intricate loaves stacked high as white-clad cooks bustle around. The battlements at Arras are stark and stunning and the final scene at the convent is spare, dominated by a tree that sheds its leaves from time to time, giving us a sense of the passage of the years and the imminence of death. Cyrano may die but “Cyrano de Bergerac” lives on in multiple incarnations down through the decades and around the world. This is one of the loveliest.

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