'Fedora' has the star power it needs Music review

October 26, 1998|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Either as a drama or as an opera (in Umberto Giordano's setting of Victorien Sardou's original), "Fedora" has always depended upon star power. The play was a hit in 1881 because of Sarah Bernhardt in the role of Princess Fedora. The opera scored a tremendous success 17 years later because of a young tenor named Enrico Caruso who sang the role of her lover.

For the last 60 years or so, however, "Fedora" has been heard only on the rare occasions when opera houses have been persuaded to revive it by either a powerful diva or tenor.

Both factors combined Saturday evening to make "Fedora" score a sensation as the opening production of the Washington Opera at the Kennedy Center. It featured two of the greatest singers of xTC the last 30 years: Washington Opera artistic director Placido Domingo and Mirella Freni.

It's easy to see why "Fedora" fell out of favor. The plot is advanced by what George Bernard Shaw described as "Sardoodledom" -- the perpetual arrival of letters, telegrams, messengers and, most importantly, by an unexpected reversal. The latter occurs when the heroine's hatred for the hero suddenly turns to love when she discovers why he murdered her fiance.

This is mostly stupid stuff, not helped much by music that often sounds like warmed-over Puccini.

But two great singers can persuade an audience that "Fedora" is memorable. And both Freni and Domingo were at the top of their form. Freni, 63, is about to retire -- she has accepted no engagements after next season.

But as this performance demonstrated, she will leave audiences remembering her not as a singer who once was great but as one who still is.

She began her career as a light, lyric soprano, whose effortless agility made her matchless as Mozart's Susanna and as Puccini's Mimi. She marshaled her resources carefully, slowly taking on some heavier roles and steadfastly declining others. Had she sung Fedora, a role that requires thrust and drama, 20 years ago, she would not be singing it -- or anything else -- now.

But it is a role that Freni now fulfills brilliantly -- with power, with a thrilling top and with much of the bloom that made her famous more than 30 years ago. Her performance drove the audience -- quite understandably -- to distraction.

As did that of Domingo. At 57, he continues to sing beautifully, accurately and with not a whit less of his characteristic heft, vigor, musical care and intelligence.

While its success depends upon its stars, this "Fedora" is not merely a vehicle for them. The production included mellifluously sung performances by Richard Stillwell and Judith Howarth in the light comedic parts of Ambassador De Sirieux and Countess Olga and conducting by Roberto Abbado that was refined as well as energetic.

"Fedora" is sold out throughout its run (Oct. 29, Nov. 1, 4, 9, 14, 17 and 20).

Pub Date: 10/26/98

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