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Super-schmaltzy ‘Fedora’ next at MET

Soprano Sonya Yoncheva sings the role of Fedora and tenor Piotr Beczala portrays her lover Count Loris in The MET Live in HD production Saturday. (Ken Howard for The Metropolitan Opera)
Giordano’s melodrama pulls out all the stops

“Fedora,” the 1898 opera based on a wildly popular melodrama of the same name, is a “lovably preposterous potboiler.” So wrote Zachary Woolfe on Jan. 1, in The New York Times. I have to agree.

In its sumptuous new production, the Metropolitan Opera frumped up Umberto Giordano’s fifth opera for its New Year’s Eve Gala. You can see a livestreamed matinee at 11 a.m. Saturday at Fort Lewis College and judge for yourself.

“Fedora” unspools in only two hours and 25 minutes through a tangled plot about love, betrayal, murder, passion and politics. Capitalizing on Victorien Sardou’s 1892 play starring Sarah Bernhardt, Giordano counted on an operatic success. Sardou specialized in tragic Romantic heroines. His “Tosca” sparked Puccini’s “Tosca,” which is now considered a classic. Not so “Fedora” even though it made its American premiere in 1906 with Enrico Caruso. The Met brought it back only once in 1996, so one wonders why now.

In Act I, Fedora Romanzov, a Russian princess, visits her fiance’s St. Petersburg apartment on the eve of their wedding. No sooner has she arrived when policemen carry in Count Vladimir who has been shot. Rumor has it that Count Loris, a family friend, is the suspected killer – and it’s political. Vladimir dies in Fedora’s arms, and she swears vengeance.

Act II takes place in Fedora’s Parisian mansion where the exiled Loris pleads his innocence. Fedora falls madly in love with him. Yes, you read that right. Loris admits he shot Vladimir but for nonpolitical reasons – to be explained later. A confused Fedora writes incriminating letters, and when later Loris explains he caught Vladimir with his own wife in an affair, it may be too late to stop some nasty business

Act III finds Fedora and Loris romancing in her Swiss villa. News arrives that her letters have caused the deaths of Loris’ brother and mother. In a rage, Loris cannot forgive Fedora. She begs him to, but events take a dark turn – not to be given away here.

If you go

WHAT: “Fedora,” by Umberto Giordano, The MET Live in HD.

WHEN: 10:55 a.m. Saturday.

WHERE: Vallecito Room, Fort Lewis College Student Union, 1000 Rim Drive.

ADMISSION: Individual tickets: adults $28, seniors $25, $24 Met member, $12 students.

MORE INFORMATION: Visit www.metopera.org and www.durangoconcerts.org or call 247-7657.

NOTES: Sung in Italian with English subtitles. Running time: Two hours, 25 minutes, one intermission.

The real question is: Why has the Met revived this 125-year-old potboiler?

By all reports, Met General Director Peter Gelb pushed hard. Speculation says nostalgia made him do it. Whatever it was, Gelb got the well-regarded but reluctant David McVicar to conceptualize a new production. Gelb also got a starry cast including soprano Sonya Yoncheva in the title role and tenor Piotr Beczala as Loris. In interviews, Beczala has compared “Fedora” to a Tom Clancy thriller: “It’s like a crime movie.”

The reluctant McVicar said in a Dec. 29 Times interview: “I’m not going to pretend that this is a neglected masterpiece. The whole confection is an operatic guilty pleasure. It has a sort of misty, nostalgic, schmaltzy appeal.”

To heighten the schmaltz factor, McVicar added a ghost. Count Vladimir’s apparition wanders around throughout as a reminder of the initial crime and Fedora’s so-called loss.

Soprano Sonya Yoncheva sings the role of Fedora and tenor Piotr Beczala portrays her lover Count Loris in The MET Live in HD production Saturday. (Ken Howard for The Metropolitan Opera)

Still, the question lingers: Why would the Met revive an old, nearly forgotten chestnut like “Fedora”?

Having never seen it, I’m simply curious. We’ll see.

Bernhardt’s fedora

The soft felt hat, known as a fedora, got its name from Sardou’s 1882 play “Fedora.” Sardou wrote the play for Sarah Bernhardt who portrayed a stylish, contemporary Russian princess wearing a new, gender-bending hat. Bernhardt took to wearing her fedora on stage and out in public, and it became a European fashion statement.

When Giordano’s opera was revived in the 1920s, the hat acquired the name “gangster fedora,” because of the association with American crime figures. It has since morphed into other sub-categories like the Western Fedora. It can be seen in movies and TV shows – on women and men.

Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.