It is hard to criticize the plot of Puccini's second opera, "Edgar," for one simple reason: It doesn't have any. What it has instead, with music that runs through a variety of styles including some that sound like Puccini, is a series of tableaux in which the hero strikes various vaguely Byronic poses.
In Act I (which begins at sunrise with Edgar waking up outside the local pub), he decides to drop out of the medieval Flemish rat race, burns down his home and runs away to live in sin with a gypsy woman named Tigrana.
Act II opens on the terrace of a palace where Edgar and Tigrana have been attending an orgy and Edgar is having a foretaste of the morning after. After singing about it for a while, he decides that orgies are not the answer and enlists in an army that happens to be passing by. (The army is commanded by Frank, brother of Edgar's childhood true love, Fidelia, and rival of Edgar for Tigrana's . . . hand, or something; but we should stick to the main line and avoid confusing side-issues.)
One or two battles take place between Act II and Act III - an awful lot of good things in this opera, like orgies and battles, do their taking place offstage, but at least Edgar does burn down his home right out there in plain sight. Edgar has become a military hero, and his funeral is about to take place. Everybody is sorry to see him go because he turned out to be a good soldier once he got the orgies and house-burning out of his system.
Tigrana is in the congregation, and so is Fidelia, who is as sweet and simple as her name would make you think. Also present is a mysterious hooded monk, who is determined to turn the funeral into a riot. He reminds the congregation of Edgar's shady past and bribes Tigrana to testify that Edgar was betraying Flanders for money in his spare time. Finally, when only Fidelia is willing to say a good word for Edgar and the congregation is ready to haul his body off to fedd the crows, the monk casts off his cloak and guess what: It's not a monk at all; it's Edgar, alive as you or me. Did you think Puccini would name an opera after someone and kill him halfway through? Edgar staged the whole thing to find out who his friends really were, and if you thought he was disgusted in the first two acts, now he is really disgusted. He announce to all assembled that, having tasted the emptiness of glory and sensual pleasure, he plans to settle down with Fidelia.
Happy ending? Almost.But in the opera's last 30 seconds, Tigrana stabs Fidelia.As the curtain falls, "Edgar flings himself across Fidelia's lifeless body, sobbing loudly . . . While several soldiers haul Tigrana away, a few girls form a grief-stricken circle around Fidelia's corpse. The friars and townspeople kneel in prayer."
It's hard not to feel that Edgar got what he deserved - except that the one who got what he deserved is really Fidelia. She is an early entry in a long line of sopranos abused by Puccini. Remember Butterfly? And Mimi? And poor little Liu in "Turandot"?
But the important question is not why Puccini hated sopranos; in a court of law, presumably, any opera composer could work up a good case of justifiable homicide against that species. The question is what kind of opera this is, receiving its first recording (Columbia M2 3458-4, two records) 88 years after its premiere at La Scala. And the answers is that "Edgar" is not really an opera; it's an identity crisis in three acts.
Not just Edgar's - Puccini's. The young composer spent a good part of the 1880s getting "Edgar" together and he continued to tinker with it in odd moments until after 1900, when he had better things to do. And while the hero is deciding whether to be a bourgeois, a satyr or a military hero, you can hear the composer wondering whether to be Verdi (no chance - Verdi was considered terribly unstylish among the young artists of the '80s), Ponchielli or Puccini.
In this aspect, at least, the opera has a happy ending. It is not a good opera, although the music is carefully crafted and sometimes inspired. It is a bad opera with some remarkably good moments. But it's bad in useful, interesting ways, and Columbia has performed a real service by making it available in a performance and recording that plead its case as eloquently as possible.
What happens in "Edgar," in terms of Puccini's development, is that he flushes out of his system all the melodramatic claptrap of the 19th century: gypsies and orgies, palaces, marching armies, funerals with a surprise ending the daggers flashing. You may argue that he substituted other forms of claptrap: "The Girl of the Golden West" with its spaghetti-Western atmosphere and a hero and heroine who - no kidding - ride off into the sunset, the spun-sugar "Suor Angelica" with its convent scenery and its surfeit of treble voices, the two-inch-deep orientalisms of "Butterfly" and "Turandot," the tubercular sentimentality of "La Boheme," the melodrama of "II Tabarro" and "Tosca," where you do have daggers flashing but not daggers ex machina. There are those (and sometimes I am one of them) who maintain that "Gianni Schicchi" is the only perfect opera Puccini composed" is the only perfect opera Puccini composed; but the flaws is his major, mature works are uniquely his own flaws - endearing in a curious way - and most of the time, when you're in the audience watching a good production, they work for the three hours they need to work.
"Edgar's gives us a glimpse of the Puccini that might have been, and the prospect is a disturbing one. You have to know one of his really bad works to appreciate his genius fully, and Columbia should be thanked.
Also to be thanked are conductor Eve Queler, who revived the score and directed a performance last April in Carnegie Hall, and the stellar cast, headed by tenor Carlo Bergonzi and sopranos Renata Scotto and Gwendolyn Killebrew, who have taken this curious antique and made it, briefly, a strangely compelling experience. The recording was made at the performance, and there are one or two small imperfections in the singing, but the overall level of interpretation is so high that you hardly notice it, was not a studio recording until the end, when the audience applauds.