A Curate’s Egg; review of Edgar

The Woodman’s Daughter, John Everett Millais, credit Wikimedia Commons

A Curate’s Egg; review of Edgar

Edgar, drama lirico by Giacomo Puccini in three acts (1905 version), libretto by Ferdinando Fontana, director Ruth Knight, City of London Sinfonia and the Opera Holland Park Chorus conducted by Naomi Woo, Opera Holland Park 6 July 2024, reviewed by Leslie Jones

Director Ruth Knight’s new production of Edgar has polarised opinion. Whereas Culture Whisper was excited to see another Puccini rarity being aired (following Opera Holland Park’s 2022 staging of Le Villi), Jessica Duchen was scathing and dismissive. Notwithstanding what Knight in the programme calls Puccini’s “profound impact on western culture…”, Edgar is rarely staged. “Back in the box with it”, Duchen adjures  (Inews, ‘Edgar, Opera Holland Park review; so bad the audience were chortling’).

For the premiere at La Scala in Milan, in 1889, the much-maligned librettist Ferdinando Fontana moved the location of the drama from the mountains of the Tyrol to lowland Flanders. Ms Knight, in turn, has transferred it from medieval Flanders (specifically Bruges, The Dead City evoked in Erich Korngold’s opera) to 19th century England, presumably because it embodies bourgeois religious and sexual hypocrisy, as documented in WT Stead’s The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon. In Knight’s reworking of Edgar, Tigrana (played by Gweneth Ann Rand), was abandoned by her parents and forced to become a sex worker. We see her briefly in the Prelude as a child, in the company of a youthful Edgar. Although this is a semi-staged production, there was evidently room for a theatrical prop which presumably represents passport control and the “othering” of illegal immigrants. “It’s become all about racism and misogyny”, complains Duchen. And she is correct if not politically correct – “relevance” cannot redeem it.

Mixing his metaphors, Gary Naylor thinks that Ferdinando Fontana “sold Puccini something of a hospital pass, and [that] no amount of repairs or revisions could get him off that hook”. Edgar was “the difficult child of the canon” (BroadwayWorld.com). Dominic Lowe agrees that there is little evidence here of Puccini’s eventual “… theatrical flair and innate faculty for character development” (Backtrack). But holes in the plot, such as the reconciliation of Frank and Edgar (performed by Julien Van Mellaerts and Peter Auty, respectively), are hardly unusual in opera. The denouement of Rigoletto springs immediately to mind. The audience are invariably forgiving, providing there are what Naylor nicely calls arias “so pleasing on the air…[which] even when expressing the darkest of thoughts, lift one’s soul”. And there is general agreement that although “Puccini’s greatest music was yet to come”, the score is replete with “soaring moments” which “glisten” (Culture Whisper). Opera Holland Park chorus and the City of London Sinfonia, conducted by Naomi Woo, evidently found “the passion and the beauty in the score” (Naylor).

Some reviews of Edgar beg the question “what exactly is the role of the critic?” Is it to help “excavate” obscure lost works that arguably throw light on Puccini’s development? “Without hearing this,” his second opera, Colin Clarke demands, “how can we “know” Puccini?” But Clarke also acknowledges that this is hardly “top-rank” material (Seen and Heard International, ‘Edgar, Opera Holland park’s recent excavation, is a revelation’). Puccini himself eventually concluded that it was “warmed-up soup”, and that its subject was “rubbish” (see Flora Willson, the Guardian, ‘Edgar review-Puccini was right, his biggest flop is a dud’). Let the composer have the last word.

Editorial endnote; indicatively, there were only three performances of Edgar, on the 3rd, 4th and 6th of July

Dr Leslie Jones is the Editor of Quarterly Review

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