Cyrano de Bergerac, the “heroic comedy” by Edmond Rostand, has never left the boards in the 120 years since it was first written. Steve Martin and Will Smith have both taken cracks at the part of Cyrano, and before them Jose Ferrer and even Mr. Magoo. My dad, who had survived World War II in the Pacific intact, broke his collarbone afterwards in a student production of Cyrano de Bergerac at Wake Forest, when he fell off the stage brandishing a sword.
The story – of a dashing swordsman and poet who dares not tell his beloved, Roxane, his deep feelings because of his gigantic nose, who instead writes love letters for his rival in her affections, Christian, a handsome but inarticulate fellow – seems to survive from generation to generation. Perhaps that’s because the experience of being tongue-tied before one’s distant beloved is almost universal. Certainly, the teenagers at the student preview got it; a number of them undoubtedly have known what lovelorn Cyrano felt since their freshman year.
Opera Carolina’s production of David DiChiera’s three-act opera from 2007, under the direction of its librettist, Bernard Uzan, is a bold step, and one to be applauded: It’s a risk to mount a contemporary opera.
DiChiera is not a spiky modernist, or a furrowed serialist, or a redundant minimalist, but writes in a neo-romantic idiom. There is Puccini and Richard Strauss and Samuel Barber in the mix, but these family resemblances only appear fleetingly; a musical motive might appear, then vanish before being stated or emphasized, and always there is great sensitivity to the action and its undercurrent feelings.
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Sometimes this was almost wizardly.
If the vocal writing were as distinguished as the instrumental writing, then Cyrano would be a great work, instead of a very good one.
Unfortunately, some of the singing parts were dull, in that didactic, declamatory manner which has so often sunken American operas. This was especially true in the first act. Cyrano, rival Christian and Roxane in the second act were much stronger, and the letter scene between Cyrano and Roxane in the third act was quite touching.
John Viscardi (baritone) brought both swagger and depth of feeling to the role of Cyrano. He sang with the panache the part demanded and the audience loved him, and wanted Roxane to love him, too.
Magali Simard-Galdes (soprano), who played Roxane, did not light up her part from within in the same way – until the third act. Then her uneasiness with the Straussian intervals and high notes in DiChiera’s vocal writing subsided and her part came into bloom.
The part of the inarticulate Christian was taken by the tenor Sebastien Gueze, who was also initially a little squally, but who conveyed the complexity of his character’s dilemma superbly, as he discovers that Roxane loves the author of the letters Cyrano has written on his behalf.
Kyle Albertson (bass) played the part of De Guiche as a mellifluous villain. Each of the smaller parts were well-drawn.
The staging was tasteful, apt and pleasingly without exaggeration or directorial antics, and the sets were handsome, if not striking.
The instrumental writing of Cyrano is sometimes magicianly, as mentioned, but on the night of the preview there were balance problems, and this affected the hardworking chorus as well as the individual singers. One of the risks of presenting a contemporary opera is that there is not a longstanding performance tradition, with great performances to emulate. I left this production feeling that there was a work of true stature waiting in the wings, and that it might emerge if the kinks were ironed out, as it deserves.
What: Opera Carolina’s production of “Cyrano de Bergerac,” with a score by David DiChiera and a libretto in French by Bernard Uzan. Tickets $21-$154.
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 4 (with a preview at 7:10); 7:30 p.m. Nov. 9 (preview at 6:40).
Where: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.