Ingrid Bergman once said that happiness depends on good health and a bad memory. According to her adage, Loris Ipanov is a terribly unhappy man.

Daniela Dessì (Princess Fedora Romazov) © Marcello Orselli
Daniela Dessì (Princess Fedora Romazov)
© Marcello Orselli

Based on Rosetta Cucchi’s new staging of Umberto Giordano's Fedora at Teatro Carlo Felice, Ipanov bears witness to incessant survivor guilt, unable to escape restless remembrances of his ill-fated family and strongest regrets – betrayal, disgrace, loss and abandonment.

Since its 1898 première (with Enrico Caruso and Gemma Bellincioni in the leading roles), Fedora has vacillated from the popular to the obscure. Arturo Colautti’s libretto (based on Victorien Sardou's play) paces the three-act melodrama as a brawny thriller with murderous rages and passions – police, spies, nihilists and assassins blithely toss around “assassino” and “vendetta” in haute bourgeois parlors. To balance its “giallo” fuss, the tightly-packed score glimmers with the lush, melodious strains of Giordano's 1896 touchstone, Andrea Chénier, but shaves arias to single digits.

Fast-forwarded 30 years to World War One from the libretto's 1881 provenance, Cucchi’s vision was anchored by actor Luca Alberti as a grey-haired, senior citizen Ipanov, seated on the proscenium in flannel work clothes or a moldy military uniform where he dozed, shuddered and sobbed to ceaseless memories of lost landscapes, absent families and historical trauma.

Covered in illusion, Ipanov Snr’s recollections were bent surreal by Tiziano Santi's scenery, which divided the stage into three horizontal striations of floor-to-ceiling, paneled glass walls. Each partition housed a temporal field: Ipanov senior’s remembrances tethered backstage while the couple's unfolding St Petersburg love story and Paris/Oberland chalet fallout parlayed the middle and front levels.

Action bled through walls, converged in slow-motion, or were hazed in muslin curtains. At times, the convention set atmosphere, like the Act III Montanine opening (“Dice la capinera: Vien primavera!”) as maimed war refugees reunited with heartbroken families.

It also punctuated the libretto's tempestuous melodrama: in Act II, when Ipanov divulged to Fedora that he’d found Vladimir and his wife in flagrante delicto and fired his gun in self-defense, Ipanov Snr smashed his glass to the floor at the admittance of the mortal wound.

In Act I, as Ipanov Snr flipped through a photo album, monochromatically-lit townspeople pressed forward into the glass, urging him to bear witness (by Luciano Novelli’s ghostly lighting). Later, when bloodied, limp Vladimir was carried into his St Petersburg mansion salon by Gretch and De Siriex, a re-enactment of his mortal shooting unfolded over falling snow.

In the hands of less agile directors, the idea could have strayed into gimmick – distracting, unwieldy and sentimentally manipulative. But prudent Cucchi knew when to let the drama speak for itself and banish backstage allusion – like when Ipanov learned that his mother had died of heartbreak and his unlucky brother had drowned in prison.

Daniela Dessì (Fedora) and Fabio Armiliato (Loris) © Marcello Orselli
Daniela Dessì (Fedora) and Fabio Armiliato (Loris)
© Marcello Orselli

To float emotional tensions above its decorous libretto, the lead roles command artistically-mature singers (like the benchmark 1993 La Scala performance with Mirella Freni and Plácido Domingo). To wit, Genovese opera singers Daniela Dessì and Fabio Armiliato stepped into role premières as the star-crossed duo, ushering in Carlo Felice's first Fedora in 15 years. 

Like Chénier, Fedora's verismo pith is well-suited to Dessì’s tessitura – mellow and flexible, resonant and lyric with a natural ease. Despite a pre-curtain announcement that said she was battling the flu, she cut through the overwrought death scene, clothed in a magenta velvet dress among Claudia Pernigotti's costumes of brass military buttons and polished boots.

Armiliato, who'd dropped out of the opening night with the same flu, floated a bright top (that sometimes tempted squillo) over a modest base. His Ipanov ice melted with tender vulnerability, like in the Act II proclamation, “Amor ti vieta”. Celebrating 15 years as a couple, the duo synchronized vignettes such as the Act II duet, “Lascia che pianga io sola” and the Act III “Te sola io guardo”.

Fabio Armiliato (Count Loris Ipanov) © Marcello Orselli
Fabio Armiliato (Count Loris Ipanov)
© Marcello Orselli

An uneven ensemble swung from compelling to banal. Alfonso Antoniozzi's dusky, lithe-voiced De Siriex sagged in Act II's “La donna russa è femmina due volte” despite strong, colorful first and third acts. Equally convincing were Roberto Maietta's authoritative Gretch, Sirio Restani's agile, adept piano accompaniment as Lazinski during the Parisian soirée, and Daria Kovalenko's bubbly Olga in kittenish soubrette for “Il Parigino è come il vino”. Luigi Roni's bellowed exuberance as Cirillo and Margherita Rotondi's inaudible, flustered Dimitri were less inspiring.

Young Tuscan conductor Valerio Galli shelved rebellion and charisma for a well-tempered, naturalistic and unforced interpretation, highlighted by a meticulously-woven tension in the run-up to Fedora's Act III suicide. Even Ipanov Snr – if not so blinded and deafened to worldly delights by unamendable regrets – would have been charmed by its measures.