There are good operas, there are bad operas, and then there are those that are so bad that they're good. Umberto Giordano's Fedora has long been derided for its melodramatic plot, full of murder, revenge and poisoned crucifixes. It's long been a vehicle for divas of a certain age too, who relish the opportunity to chew the scenery as the vengeful Russian princess. The Met's luxurious cast makes the best possible case for Fedora as not just a finely-crafted piece of theatre, but also a whole lot of fun.

Sonya Yoncheva (Fedora) and Piotr Beczała (Count Loris)
© Ken Koward | Met Opera

If only conductor Marco Armiliato had indulged a bit more in its excesses. Under his baton, the orchestra sounded absolutely ravishing, bringing out unexpected subtleties in the score. But despite the short running time, Giordano's score has its longueurs – an extended passage about the joys of bicycles had me checking the time – and needs a sweep and momentum to carry the drama forward.

Giordano's Fedora at the Met
© Ken Koward | Met Opera

A large part of the blame must go to Sir David McVicar’s apathetic new production, his 13th(!) for the Met and the second this season alone. It’s easy to see why he’s become the go-to director for the house; his productions are stylishly expensive without interfering with the narrative. But this Fedora provides neither dramatic insight nor visual spectacle – the sets and costumes look as if they were borrowed from the Met’s old productions of Traviata and Fledermaus – and McVicar’s one innovation, the ghost of Fedora’s murdered fiancé, convolutes rather than clarifies the plot.

Rosa Feola (Olga) and Bryan Wagorn (Lazinski)
© Ken Koward | Met Opera

It doesn’t help, of course, that Arturo Colautti’s libretto does so little with the extensive supporting cast. Best among them was the luxuriously-cast Rosa Feola, who brought gleaming tone and sparkling humour to the role of Countess Olga. Her champagne aria, straight out of a Strauss operetta, can seem like pointless divertissement, but in Feola’s hands it glittered. Lucas Meachem’s lustrous baritone was an ideal fit for the affable De Siriex, and pianist Bryan Wagorn had his turn in the spotlight as the mysterious Lazinski in one of Giordano’s more inspired musical moments.

Sonya Yoncheva (Fedora)
© Ken Koward | Met Opera

But this opera rises or falls based on its leading couple, and tenor Piotr Beczała dispatched the opera’s big tune with full-throated passion. His stylish tenor may no longer have the sweetness it once did, but the voice has grown to fill the Met with clarion, Italianate tone. He was well matched with Sonya Yoncheva, bringing glamour and vulnerability to the title role and sounding as ravishing as she looked in Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s period gowns. 

She sang spectacularly, shading her velvety soprano with melancholy and cannily navigating Giordano's orchestral climaxes in a role that really calls for a bigger voice. But although she does the requisite diva posturing, the best Fedoras have a dramatic generosity, a recklessness that Yoncheva yet lacks. But no matter, when she and Beczala let it rip in their duets, throwing out massive high Cs with abandon, it grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go until the curtain falls: verismo at its thrilling best.