Metropolitan Opera 2022-23 Review: Fedora

Sonya Yoncheva & Piotr Beczala Shine in McVicar’s Latest Production

By Francisco Salazar

(Review written in collaboration with David Salazar)

The last time the Met Opera put on Giordano’s “Fedora” was 25 years ago.

It was a common refrain in the lead up to the New Year’s Eve opening night with The New York Times, in an exclusive preview for the production, emphasizing the fact and trying to make sense of why this is the case.

And while that isn’t anything particularly surprising given that this happens a lot in the opera world (probably more surprising is that the Met Opera is going to be presenting a veritable repertory staple “Lohengrin” for the first time since 2006 later this season), the conversation took on a lot of new light when that same publication published some breaking news about the Met around the same time. That story, entitled “Pandemic Woes Lead Met Opera to Tap Endowment and Embrace New Work,” details the company’s shift in direction toward championing new work.

Which brings us to “Fedora” and a new production for an opera that hasn’t been showcased in 25 years and, with a grand total of 35 performances prior to this 2023 showcase, might have to wait another quarter century for a return (prior to the 1996 production, the opera had not taken the Met stage since 1926!), unless the opera somehow becomes reappraised as a true classic. Based on David McVicar’s statement in the NY Times piece on the opera that he was “not going to pretend that this is a neglected masterpiece” and its “ambitions are quite low,” that is unlikely to be the case.

For years, the Met and the opera world at large have engaged in co-productions to help with costs and diminishing overall financial (and hopefully ecological) waste. This has often been the case with a lot of newer operas which tend to tour across several companies involved in the co-production before making some revival stops at these same companies or others or simply disappearing altogether (we’ve seen this with such recent works as “The Exterminating Angel” and “Marnie” at the Met, for example). But this also happens with more traditional works, especially those that haven’t been booked their place in the standard repertory. So if there was ever an opera that was screaming for this kind of treatment, that would be “Fedora.” Of course, the unyielding structure of big opera companies makes this a bit complicated to anticipate and its likely this “Fedora” was conceived well before the Met had a full picture of the financial chances that it was taking (in the Playbill, Met Opera General Manager Peter Gelb notes that “Fedora” as project originated with seeking a star vehicle for soprano Sonya Yoncheva). But ultimately, given the accumulating narratives of preceding weeks, this “Fedora” was suddenly not only tasked with making a case for its own merits, but potentially for how other operas of its ilk (rare traditional ones) are presented in future Met seasons.

A McVicar Production

“Fedora” is a massive task for any company to take on. While clocking in at around two hours, it requires a rather large cast and an imaginative director that can clarify the opera’s labyrinthine plot.

Enter Sir David McVicar, whose Met Opera career has become an increasing mixed bag. The master director debuted with the company back in 2009 with a new production of “Il Trovatore” (in co-production with San Francisco Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago) that was masterful not only in its ability to deepen the (unfairly) maligned plot of Verdi’s most melodic of operas, but for its ability to give it new life with the company after years of neglect. He followed that with his hit/miss Tudor trilogy, a brilliant “Giulio Cesare” (a production owned by Glyndebourne), solid productions of “Adriana Lecouvreur” and “Agrippina” (also co-productions with other companies) and then some more misses in the form of “Tosca,” “Norma” the verismo double bill of “Cavalleria Rusticana” and “Pagliacci,” and a recent “Don Carlos.”

When McVicar is at his best, mainly in co-productions he’s brought to the Met, he’s played with the limits of how the operatic stories can be presented onstage, and even their narratives take on new life. In “Trovatore” he emphasizes that the core brother-brother rivalry between Manrico and Conte di Luna has a larger cultural component by setting it during the Spanish Civil War. “Agrippina’s” more modern touch emphasizes the story’s transcendence. “Giulio Cesare’s” emphasis on British colonialism also points towards opera’s relevance and importance. In these productions, we see imagination and joy (in the Händel works, especially) in the exploration of form and narrative possibilities. 

But in most other cases at the Met, McVicar seems to play it rather safe to the point where those productions and their aesthetic are so traditional and reserved in their approach (“Norma,” “Tosca,” “Don Carlos”) that they demand that the singers bring them to life. The imagination seems to capitulate to the traditions of the past and the joy of exploration of narrative and formal possibilities goes missing altogether. It’s probably perfect for more conservative operagoers, but it often feels like a case of recycled ideas from other productions or directors (“Tosca” is nothing if not Zeffirelli-light). 

“Fedora” is more of the latter than the former, though McVicar, despite his reservations of the opera, manages to find some interesting ideas to explore.

Like a lot of operas, a lot the major action happens off-stage, but “Fedora” seems to take that idea and expand on it toward a breaking point. Letters and telegrams come in and off the stage constantly updating characters on plot developments. The opera’s main political plot, which centers on the Russian nihilist movement, expects its audience to come with context and knowledge on that topic. And the first act is nothing if not a massive exposition dump for the most consequential action in the entire opera – a murder we never see.

So it was refreshing to see McVicar play up this notion of on-stage/off-stage action by focusing on foreground/background staging. The first act takes place in a salon featuring a series of portraits hanging at the top of wall. Featuring artistic aesthetics that shift toward more modern look and feel, you can immediately get the sense of a lineage that ends with the largest painting hanging on its own wall on stage left. This painting depicts Count Vladimiro Andrejevich and it will remain onstage, perched on this wall, for the entirety of the evening looking down on the action. When Vladimiro himself finally appears, he’s been shot and taken upstage into another room behind the salon. For the ensuing scene, the stage portrays the dual action in the salon and Vladimiro bedroom. The confusion of the plot clarification in the salon is thus contrasted with a more direct visual of a man dying.

This aesthetic is further developed in Act two where we are taken to a luxurious ballroom. During a prominent scene where Loris Ipanoff reveals the truth to Fedora about the murder while a pianist performs a concert, the staging once again emphasizes this foreground/background aesthetic to further emphasize the musical counterpoint of having this most dramatic of duets accompanied by a solo piano.

McVicar also uses space in this manner when he introduces Vladimiro’s ghost during Act two; the figure stands all the way downstage, watching Fedora from the background. He reappears in the final Act in much the same way.

The set design across the three acts also remains similar in structure with the background elevated by a series of staircases to either the concert hall, Vladimiro’s bedroom, or the entrance and exit of the villa. It’s all very attractive visually and hits home the period costume aesthetic comfortably.

But not all of the elements work. The staging in Act one is a bit of a mess with the compressed space often cluttered and messy in its execution. It often felt like a traffic jam on stage with the actors seemingly making sure to make way carefully for others coming in and out of the stage. One could argue that the whole act is chaotic, but this kind of messiness in many ways detracted from the narrative clarity so essential to following along with what’s going on. Throw in the overall dark color palette of all of the costuming and you end up losing the individuality of all the different characters who appear in that opening act (there are a lot of characters); you wouldn’t be blamed for confusing one character for another during this act as a result.

Then there’s the ghost of Vladimiro, a confounding choice. On one hand, it makes sense to use his presence as a means of emoting Fedora’s own internal feelings, but the device doesn’t really develop much beyond a brief moment of connection between him and Fedora in the Act two intermezzo. But otherwise, the ghost simply stands around at the back. When Fedora learns the truth about him, there is no substantial interaction with the ghost and how it affects her. When he returns on stage in the final act, likewise, there is no substantial interaction with Fedora to comment on either her emotional state or internal conflict. Sure, one could argue that the emotional shifts are so rapid (Fedora going from hating to loving Loris Ipanoff is sudden, as is her decision to drink the poison), but one can imagine that there was room to be more creative with this device once introduced. Otherwise, as a viewer, you are left to ponder its purpose outside of the obvious one. And on that front, the ghost figure fulfills the same purpose that his painting already does effectively and, if not more subtly, at least less distractingly. In this case, it feels like an unfinished idea that could have been so much more but ends up a mere redundancy.

Ultimately this production, flaws and all, works much in the same way McVicar’s “Medea” production worked this year. With its flashy, conservative approach, it introduces audiences to an opera they might not know in a pleasing, inoffensive, and sometimes, insightful manner.

Warming Into the Role

Back in October Sonya Yoncheva made her role debut as Fedora at the Teatro alla Scala. During that run, Yoncheva triumphed and gave audiences a peak at what is definitely one of her best roles in years. Three months later, Yoncheva continues to excel in it and her voice has definitely grown into the role. Her chest voice, which was a bit weaker in October, has blossomed and her middle register has become stronger and projects beautifully into the Met’s cavernous house.

That being said, the soprano’s turn as the Russian princess continues to have weak points. In The New York Times preview piece, the soprano said that it took her the entire production at La Scala and the start of rehearsals of the Met production to really understand the plot and what was happening. That seemed apparent in this Met production as she took two acts to really get into the character.

In Act one, the soprano seemed to be lost on stage walking around in a triangle as she sang her first aria “O grandi occhi lucenti.” That aria was sung with a warm voice and distinctly rich tone. However, there was a meandering nature to her vocal line, resulting in a bit of an anticlimactic high note. The second aria, “Su questa santa croce,” which is more of a declamation and doesn’t have the same legato line, lacked general nuance as Yoncheva delivered the passage with a similar mezzo-forte dynamic throughout. Moreover, the chest tones also sounded a bit hollow.

In the second Act, Yoncheva’s Fedora got lost in the crowds due to the decision to dress her in the same white as the rest of the chorus. Her vocalization in this act also featured a lot of forte singing with little nuance or variety that had diminishing returns across the entire act. Her letter reading, “Anima mia!” also lacked any dynamic variety and built quickly to a forte.

That said the intense fortes were most effective at the end of the Act two duet “Vedi, io piango.” Here, when Fedora finally declares her love for Ipanoff, Yoncheva unleashed her full vocal resources. As the line intensified her tone also grew and her high notes blossomed with ease. When she finally sang the lines “T’amo,” you could feel Yoncheva really giving into the music. It was the first time one felt that she was completely penetrated by the score. It didn’t hurt that Beczala was also giving his all. It was an ecstatic finale that deservedly got a huge ovation.

And from that duet on Yoncheva was a thrill to behold. At the outset of the act, you saw her smile gleam on stage. Her voice took on a brighter and softer texture in her exchange with Rosa Feola’s Countess Olga. But that quickly turned to horror and torment that was most present in the gloriously sung “Dio di giustizia.” While at times her chest voice was disconnected from her middle register, the graininess of the voice was effective in communicating the character’s suffering. Yoncheva began with a mezzo piano on a lush legato line that transformed into a mezzo forte that slowly diminuendoed into a piano as she sang the final lines “salva l’amor mio!”

Then in her final duet with Beczala, Yoncheva moved about the stage avoiding eye contact with him throughout. At one point she took Boroff’s letter and attempted to hide it. And as Beczala stole back the letter, Yoncheva’s Fedora agonized over the truth of her crime. The final duet “Boroff Lui!,” Yoncheva began with an assured tone that presented a powerful middle voice that continuously grew. At first, as she sang “Ascoltami! Se fosse pentita, o cuor generoso, pietà non avresti,” her line was lush and beautifully phrased, but as the duet continued, she became more agitated and her singing continued to garner strength leading to some heart-wrenching singing. Her “Loris, io ben ti conosco” blossomed, while chest tones on “son perduta” were attacked with fierce accents. You could feel her suffering as she sang “Pietà!” As Beczala threw her to the ground, Yoncheva emoted the lines “Ah! non uccidermi! Guarda, è la more” with intensity and quickly took the poison.

Her final passage “Troppo Tardi! Tutto Tramonta,” Yoncheva sang with delicacy and a gorgeous pianissimo sound. And she was simply heartbreaking as she emoted a breathier sound toward her final lines, “Le tue labbra adorate…”

Ardent Tenor

As Loris Ipanoff, Piotr Beczala was making his role debut. The role is a tough sing for any tenor as it requires the singer to be on stage for two full acts and sing extended arias and monologues as well duets with Fedora. All those passages should continuously grow and show the various colors of a tenor voice as well as the intensity of the voice. Beczala is known for his vocal intelligence and for his gorgeous phrasing, but on this evening, his Loris seemed to lack nuance and color.

The tenor opened the opera with a smoothly sung “Amor ti Vieta.” It is the most famous piece of the opera and Beczala didn’t disappoint in phrasing with a gorgeous and passionate legato line. Beczala also maintained a diverse array of dynamics continuously building on each line until reaching the forte on the line “t’amo.”

In his first exchange with Yoncheva in the duet, “Se innocente sei davvero,” Beczala paid close attention to his scene partner in each exchange and sang with careful diction. But his tone in this parlato exchange was full of forte singing. And that approach was even more apparent in “Mia madre, la mia vecchia madre.” Beczala started off with a softer tone but quickly went full blast. The voice only got more and more intense and at times the timbre was seemingly pushed to its limits. It was impressive to see how he could sustain that intensity throughout that section without any sign of fatigue. But the scene is over six minutes of music and it eventually climaxes in “Ella balza, lo l’afferro,” which is when Loris reveals he killed Vladimiro. However, that climax seemed to get lost in the lack of dynamic nuance or buildup.

Then there was the “Vedi, Io Piango” in which Beczala explored Loris’ torment with incredible fortes. But his choice to kickstart the duet on full-blast gave the passage little place to build. But ultimately, that ardent timbre effectively melded with Yoncheva’s creamy tone. Beczala was particularly enraptured in singing “Fedora io t’amo. Il tuo sguardo m’inebria.” As he closed the duet he took Yoncheva in his arms and kissed her passionately.

Beczala’s final act was arguably his best as he brought his signature nuance and refinement, while still giving that intensity from the previous act. You could finally see a build in the character as he opened the act with a bright timbre before quickly shifting toward a darker color. His initial letter reading started with a gleaming sound that slowly turned to a brooding, hushed tone.

His recitative “Ah! L’infame eri tu?” and “Sei tu che uccidesti mia madre e il fratello?” showed some of the tenor’s most dramatic singing of his Met career and that agitated characteristic was amped up by his violent physicality with Yoncheva’s Fedora. Suddenly, in this moment, there was a rawness, a spontaneity in the staging. It was perhaps the most breathtaking moment of the evening.

And then as Yoncheva drank the poison, that agitation turned to remorse in his lines “Boroff… questa donna… il veleno…So tutto…Salvala…” His final lines “non voglio che muioa!” and “per darti il mio perdon” were sung with devastation and were incredibly gutting.

Strong Support

The Met lined up a solid supporting cast with Rosa Feola leading the charge as Countess Olga. The soprano entered the stage with a flirtatious appeal and she remained a magnetic presence throughout the evening. Her fluttery soprano was vibrant as it ascended the waltz-like lines of Giordano’s score, imbuing “Il Parigiano e come il vino” with delicacy, virtuosity, and flexibility. This playfulness continued during her Act three exchanges with Des Siriex and Fedora which drew numerous laughs from the audience.

In the role of Des Siriex, Lucas Meachem started off his aria “La Donna Russa” with a robust voice that showed his voice’s elasticity. There was a boisterousness to his singing with heavily accented lines that ended being a perfect foil for Feola’s “Il Parigiano e come il vino” moments later. There was no clearer musical way of showing two opposites attracting. He contrasted that initial aria with a brooding sound in his brief monologue “Lui?…cade per l’empia di crudelta” which was gorgeously accompanied by the dark sounds of the orchestras. You could sense Meachem’s fear and the foreboding quality of his timbre. Moreover, his stage presence was also quite potent with the baritone managing to shift from grand gestures during “La Donna Russa” to more gentle and subtle ones as he knelt down beside Fedora in the final act to bring her bad news.

In the role of Cirillo, Jeongcheol Cha was impressive as he sang “Quell’uom correndo.” He demonstrated an imposing bass-baritone filled with gorgeous phrasing. The role of A Peasant Boy was sung by Luka Zylik bringing nostalgia to his voice. In smaller roles, Tony Stevenson, Rocky Eugenio Sellers, and Brian Vu opened the opera with some light-hearted exchanges each providing unique vocal color and contrast. Laura Krumm, as Dimitri showcased a fine though muted mezzo, while Lucia Lucas imbued Gretch, the police investigator, with a coarseness.

In the pit, Marco Armiliato returned to the opera which he clearly has some affinity for after his impressive conducting at the Teatro alla Scala. This time around he took some time to warm up as the first act had moments of uncertainty and the opening waltz lacked vibrancy amidst a slow tempo. But as Act two developed, so did Armiliato’s conducting. Most notable was his approach to the interlude, which began with brooding strings that quickly turned to an orchestral recap of the main love melody. There was an ethereal nature to the orchestral playing that seemed like it could easily meld lines with flexibility. In the ensuing duet with Beczala and Yoncheva, Armiliato continuously crescendoed in the orchestra until delivering an arousing and climactic forte. In the final act, Armiliato contrasted the chirpy exchanges of Des Siriex and the Countess with the menacing lower strings in Des Siriex’s monologue and then Loris’ reading of the letter. The final duet was expertly accompanied by an ebb and flow of dynamics. You could sense the agitation in the orchestra in the first part of the duet and then celestial death music which eventually crescendoes to a gripping final chord.

Finally, a shoutout to Bryan Wagorn who, as Polish virtuoso Boleslao Lazinski was the punchline of many jokes, until he sat at the piano and delivered a true virtuoso display while accompanying the powerful duet happening on the other extreme of the stage.

Ultimately, the singers made a case for “Fedora,” regardless of everything else. There are seven performances remaining and audiences should do what they can to catch it while it’s there. Because it might be another 25 years (or more) before it comes back.


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