By Konrad Dryden. Scarecrow Press. 238 pp. ISBN: 978-0-8108-6970-7
Thanks to Plácido Domingo, who has performed Cyrano de Bergerac at major opera houses around the world, Alfano is now revealed to be more than just the man who completed Turandot. Two DVD versions of Cyrano are available (with Domingo, and Alagna) and there are two complete recordings of his early verismo success based on Tolstoy, Risurrezione. Alfano’s own favorite of his operas, La leggenda di Sakùntala can be heard on a CD of a Italian radio broadcast from the mid 1950’s with Anna di Cavalieri, and recently appeared in Rome in 2006. This study, the first in English, reveals a man who, despite advocacy from conductor Tullio Serafin and Mary Garden, who performed Risurrezione until she was 60, was regarded as an also-ran. He seems to have been diffident, often acting contrary to his impulses, knowingly setting weak libretti, and getting railroaded into the Turandot project. Incidentally he showed colossal lack of judgment here, talking to the press when the whole completion issue was supposed to be under wraps, and incurring the wrath of Toscanini and the Ricordi publishing empire.
Dr. Konrad Dryden, a descendant of John Dryden, has previously written books on Leoncavallo and Zandonai. Through a personal contact to Alfano’s adopted daughter, Nina, he has had access to unpublished correspondence. Dryden’s written style is unique. At first I thought the work was imperfectly translated from the German, but he is American born, of English and German parentage. He could be dubbed the William McGonagall of music writers. On the first page of the introduction we read:
‘He (Alfano)is the vibrant author of innovative operas emanating elegiac poetry and sweeping passion, complemented by atmospheric symphonies that, as an art form, originally lacked an enduring tradition in his native country’. My favorite concerns the irregularities of the Alfano’s marital situation: ‘Such personal arrangements seem typical of the complicated and oft impenetrable penumbra afflicting Italy’s composers, whose affairs, marriages, adoptions, reburials, and legitimate (and illegitimate) offspring evoke a sense of awe and bewilderment.’ Reburials?? The copious footnotes are silent on this one.
Of the musical style of Risurrezione we learn that ‘Incessant diatonic variances serve to complement Katiusha’s varying degrees of desperation’. La leggenda di Sakùntala is assessed as follows: ‘A seductive and harmonically unique operatic enchantment’ - but later the author writes: ‘Noteworthy is that the main Sakùntala /king love duet is actually void of an alluring center. Packaged professionally, this factor remains unnoticeable, or at least irrelevant.’ Is this good or bad? I can’t tell. Likewise ‘The orchestration – the music drama’s actual protagonist – is akin to a symphonic poem. Its distinct spirituality and sense of purity at times risk asphyxiation by Alfano’s insistence on overburdening the work with his entire artistic and aesthetic creed’. Cyrano de Bergerac ‘astounds the listener due to its bombastic grandeur.....here, Alfano has written music of passion, power and frustration’. Is this advocacy or criticism?
Elsewhere, the author’s schoolmasterly opprobrium can be startling. An Illica libretto is described as ‘a detestable offering’, the veteran verismo soprano Carla Gavazzi has an ‘emotional yet curiously commonplace voice’ and the world’s ignorance of Alfano, aside from his completion of Turandot is ‘an execrable example of incomprehension and a lethal assessment’. His grasp of operatic terms is approximate. Literaturoper is used incorrectly: it should refer to a verbatim setting of a literary source without the intervention of a librettist, such as Pelleas et Melisande or Salome, not as here, a work based on a literary text, but adapted by a librettist, such as Tolstoy’s Resurrection or Francis Hodgson-Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy, source for Alfano’s 1930 opera L’ultimo Lord. The music of Lakmé and Le roi de Lahore is described as having a ‘distinct Indian ambience’, which is rot. Their generic 19th century orientalism does service for Verdi and Massenet’s Egypt, Bizet’s Ceylon and countless biblical operas. Despite copious footnotes, and much unrevealing biographical minutiae (we learn how much Alfano weighed!), there is no perspective on the decline of Italian opera in this period, and though Alfano’s correspondence with Mussolini is referred to, the real nature of their relationship remains opaque. Curiously, Dryden is so anxious to avoid rating Alfano’s completion of Turandot, that Toscanini’s intervention, and the two distinct versions are not even mentioned, let alone compared. Jürgen Maehder’s compact essay in the ENO Guide to Turandot is infinitely more insightful.
On the plus side, there is an affectionate foreword from Magda Olivero, who knew the maestro, and sang several of his operas in his presence, some fascinating photographs published for the first time, and an attractively resilient binding which survived being flung across the room several times in my increasing frustration and despair at discerning what on earth the author was on about.
There are signs that Alfano may well have ‘transcended Turandot’, but whether he can transcend this book is another matter.
© Julian Grant 2010.