One of my favorite Woody Allen movies may offer a way to rescue Puccini's "Edgar" from neglect, even scorn. Stay with me here.
In "What's Up, Tiger Lily?" Allen took a James Bond-inspired Japanese film from 1965 and dubbed in his own dialogue with a completely new plot. The result was that the oh-so-suave spy and oh-so-tough villains on the screen were now fighting over — wait for it — an egg salad recipe.
So what does this have to do with "Edgar," given a rare and welcome presentation over the weekend by Baltimore Concert Opera?
Puccini's second opera has a lot of attractive, even quite inspired music that reveals not just hints of how brilliantly he would develop, but how darn talented he already was. There's just one problem. The plot.
Ferdinando Fontana's libretto, based on an Alfred de Musset play, tells a silly tale of a guy named Edgar in medieval Flanders who has two women — one pure, Fidelia; one a little trashy and evil, Tigrana — interested in him.
Edgar burns down his house in anger when villagers complain about Tigrana, and wounds his brother, Frank, who fancies her. Later on, Edgar fakes his own death and, at the funeral, tricks Tigrana into revealing how bad she really is. But as soon as he reveals that he's alive and well, ready to ride off in bliss with his true sweetheart, Tigrana stabs Fidelia to death. Curtain.
Not even Wagner could have sold this thing. But Puccini gives it his best shot with remarkable lyricism, lush harmonies and rich orchestral coloring — not a note of which conjures up medieval Flanders. (Toscanini chose to conduct the requiem music from "Edgar" at Puccini's funeral, quite a vote of confidence.)
The score really is quite rewarding to listen to, as long as you don't pay too much attention to what's being sung. So I say find someone to fashion a brand new libretto with a great plot and, a la "What's Up, Tiger Lily," graft it onto the original opera. Maybe hold a contest to see who could create the most plausible alternative.
Given how unlikely my plan is, you can count on few opportunities to experience "Edgar" in an opera house. It may attract the curious once in a while, but will not likely work its way into the active repertoire.
It is, however, a perfect candidate for a concert format, where all the attention is on the music. Even without the benefit of an orchestra (Puccini's instrumental writing really is marvelous in this piece), Baltimore Concert Opera successfully conveyed the essence of "Edgar."
On Sunday afternoon in the ballroom of the Engineers Club, a large audience heard a performance by a vibrant cast, accompanied with great flair by James Harp at the piano, and conducted with an effective balance of propulsion and spaciousness by Giovanni Reggioli.
In the title role, tenor Joshua Kohl revealed a firm technique and dynamic phrasing. Colleen Daly excelled as Fidelia, using her warm, ample soprano and refined musicality (lots of lovely, floated high notes) to bring the character to life. Her radiant account of ''Addio, mio dolce amor'' in Act 2 was a particular pleasure.
Maariana Vikse, adding some not inappropriate Carmen-esque moves onstage, sang with abundant spirit, if somewhat cloudy tone. Gustavo Ahualli left a mark as Frank. The baritone stepped away from the music stand to deliver "Questo amor, vergogna mia" — a highlight of Act 1 — from memory and with elegant styling. The chorus made a robust, mostly polished sound.
Last season, Baltimore Concert Opera offered an even rarer item, Franco Faccio's "Amleto" (Faccio conducted the 1889 premiere of "Edgar" at La Scala, by the way). It's good to see that the organization didn't put all its eggs in one "Amleto," but decided to go out on another limb this year, too, with an operatic novelty. Here's to more adventures.