The indisputable star of the new Naxos DVD of Franco Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac, filmed at the Palau de les Arts ‘Reina Sofia’ in Valencia and directed by Michal Znaniecki, is, as in all other stage, operatic and film adaptations of the Cyrano story, the enormous prosthetic nose worn by the title character. The nose in this production — a 5-inch, vaguely beak-like stunner — works beautifully in tandem with its stage partner, tenor Placido Domingo, who himself delivers a strong, emotive vocal and acting performance in what liner notes state is the 121st new role of his career.
It’s difficult to discern exactly what attracted Domingo this role. The opera comes across as a fairly minor effort (Alfano is best-remembered for composing some additional music for Turandot after Puccini’s death), and the title role is not one that offers vocal challenges or irresistible arias appropriate for a musician of his stature and skill. My best guess is that it was Cyrano and not Alfano that Domingo wished to be associated with. The opera’s story is a familiar and much-adapted one and the character of Cyrano is iconic, so perhaps Domingo wished to add his interpretation to the historic gallery of Cyranos that includes everyone from Kevin Kline and Steve Martin to José Ferrer and Gérard Depardieu.
If Domingo is slightly less than credible as a master swordfighter, particularly in an awkwardly staged duel with his romantic rival-turned-ally Christian (a dashing Arturo Chacón Cruz), he is entirely convincing as a heartsick man tormented by his love for an unattainable woman. He handles the vocal demands of the role gorgeously, showing deep, rich colors and easily navigating Henri Cain’s French libretto and a score from the far perimeters of the standard repertory.
As Roxane, the woman Domingo pines for, Sondra Radvanovsky feels a bit like luxury casting. Her unique soprano sound can be so glorious in great Verdi roles that hearing her sing the relatively undistinguished, though plentiful, music Alfano has composed for Roxane simply makes the viewer wish she were employing her talents in a more vocally thrilling dramatic soprano role. She provides an effective counterbalance to Domingo as a lovely, expressive vocal and physical performer, and if she’s never quite heart-stopping in the role, it’s probably because no one could be. The Radvanovsky/Domingo romantic chemistry isn’t exactly Netrebko/Villazon ca. 2006, but it isn’t exactly Gheorghiu/Alagna ca. 2010, either; both stars are strong enough singers and actors to be thoroughly convincing while acting out the steps of a very familiar plot.
The production is tasteful and fast-moving, cleverly employing mirrors in a variety of scenes that keep reminding Cyrano of his physical shortcomings. A key scene in Rageneau’s bake shop makes effective use of supernumeraries bustling about with cakes and the big battle scene is clearly, if somewhat uninspiringly, staged. One often-used set piece — Roxane’s balcony, among other things— bears an unfortunate resemblance to a wooden parking garage and Radvanovsky is (literally) saddled with a floor-length baby blue bow/cape combo in her first scene that would be judged “too much” even at a Texas beauty pageant, but director/designer Znaniecki and costume designer Isabelle Comte have otherwise made safe choices that don’t distract the audience from the narrative flow of the work.
The problem here is that Alfano’s Cyrano de Bergerac is so musically undistinguished that a bit of visual distraction would be welcome. (Patrick Fournillier’s capable conducting, like the central performances, seems more distinguished than the music itself; his efforts with the Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana are reminiscent, in the score’s weakest moments, of, say, Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the USA” as played on a Stradivarius.) As it is, the production plays a bit like a sung-through Masterpiece Theater production with a higher-than-normal budget.
The two charismatic stars— well, two, plus a truly inspired false nose (which, like a silent film star, delivers its best work in close-ups) — make this DVD worth a rental; it’s difficult to imagine this opera being given a better production. But it doesn’t make much of a case for Cyrano as an unjustly neglected classic of the form — like the unfortunate-looking hero himself, Alfano’s opera is perhaps best-suited to dark, lonely corners.