Opera in three acts.
Libretto by Arturo Colautti based on the play Fedora (1882) by Victorien Sardou, written for the actress Sarah Bernhardt.
First performed in the Teatro Lirico in Milan on 17 November 1898.
St Petersburg in the winter of 1881: the palace of Count Vladimir Andreievich, Captain of the City Guard
Count Andreievich leads a debauched life of drinking, gambling and womanising: he is out for the evening as the opera opens, leaving his servants playing dominoes and discussing their master. It is the evening before his marriage to a rich young widow, Princess Fedora Romazov, and she arrives, obviously perturbed that she has been waiting in vain for the Count, but still looking forward to her impending marriage. Suddenly a policeman, Grech, and a diplomat, de Siriex arrive with two porters carrying the Count, who has been wounded. A doctor, Lorek, is called and Grech tells him that the Count has been the victim of an assassination attempt. Grech starts to question de Siriex, who explains that he is Giovanni de Siriex, attached to the French Embassy.
Lorek sends a policemen off to fetch some medicines and a priest, he explains to Fedora that the Count’s condition is serious and she begs him to save her fiancé’s life. Grech starts to question Fedora, asking her whether the Count had any enemies: as his assistant takes notes, he questions the staff and it emerges that earlier that evening the Count had gone by coach to his club and that two shots were heard, then a figure was seen running away from the building, dripping blood. As the coachman called for help, de Siriex happened to be passing on a sleigh and went into the grounds of the club, where he found the Count lying in a pool of blood in a lonely pavilion. Grech produces a pistol and de Siriex confirms that it was lying on the ground beside the Count – one shot had been fired. The servants explain that as the son of General Yariskin, a powerful political figure, the Count had been threatened in the past and that now he never goes out without a gun. Grech assumes that the attacker was a nihilist. It then emerges that the pavilion had been rented by an old woman, and that an old woman had come to the palace earlier in the day with a letter for the Count. But the woman cannot be identified and the letter cannot be found now, and it transpires that a man had also called, waited a while, and then left without giving his name. Fedora cries out that this man must be the attacker and demands that he be found and punished. She swears on a Byzantine cross which she wears around her neck that she will devote herself to permanent chastity and mourning, and that she will find some way to be avenged for the attack. Grech, cooler in his interrogation of the servants, pushes them to remember anything that might be relevant. The door-keeper recalls that a man came on Christmas Day and spoke for some time with the Count. He eventually remembers the man’s name – it was Ipanov. Ipanov, it is revealed, lives opposite, and the police rush across to his house and search it. Fedora and de Siriex watch their shadows as the search goes on, but they are interrupted by Dr Lorek, who emerges from the Count’s room to tell them that the Count has died. As Grech returns to tell them that the assassin has escaped, Fedora cries out in anguish and falls in a faint.
Several months later. In the Paris house of Princess Fedora, a reception is beginning. There is a conservatory full of exotic plants, and a grand piano on a platform, surrounded by chairs.
A young cousin of Fedora, Countess Olga Sukarev, is introducing her protégé, an exiled Polish pianist named Boleslao Lazinski, to the guests, including a Dr Borov. The mood is one of lightness and humour. Fedora greets the diplomat de Siriex who is a guest at her party and introduces him to another guest, Count Loris Ipanov. De Siriex realises that this must be the supposed assassin, and Fedora tells him under her breath that she tracked Ipanov down to Paris, flirted with him to entrap him, and that she intends to force him into confessing the murder. Loris is completely unaware of who she is or of her motives and has indeed fallen in love with Fedora. He tells Borov, who is clearly a family friend, that he loves her, while Fedora tells de Siriex that she too may be slightly in love with Loris, but that she will be merciless once she has got him to confess. Borov foresees disaster for both of them.
Olga lightens the mood, complaining of her inability to attract the right man. Fedora explains to another guest that she too carries a cross, and shows him the Byzantine cross, telling him that it contains the cure for all problems. Olga introduces her latest project, explaining that Lazinski is the nephew of Chopin, and that he is going to play for them. Both de Siriex and Lazinski offer Olga their arms, and when Olga accepts the pianist, de Siriex, with a smile, calls her a Cossack. Olga pretends to be insulted and asks for an explanation. De Siriex launches into a song in praise of Russian women – adorable, hostile, an altar, an abyss, a mystery, the essence of womanhood.
Loris declares his love to Fedora, and tells her that her eyes reveal the words that she cannot speak with her lips. Borov comes to say goodbye – he is leaving for Russia at midnight. Fedora says that she will follow him the next day. Loris says that sadly, he cannot return to Russia. Fedora asks him whether he has done something serious to prevent his returning, and he replies that he has, but that he is guilty of no crime. Lazinski begins to play the piano, and against the background of his playing, while everyone’s attention is diverted, Loris explains to Fedora that he has been wrongly accused of killing Count Vladimir Andreievich, but that he cannot hope for a fair hearing since the Count’s father holds such a powerful position in St Petersburg. Fedora challenges Loris to prove his innocence to her, but he refuses to give her the details in the middle of a party, so she tells him to come to her rooms later and explain everything then. She is exultant, certain that she will soon have the proof she needs. The piano recital ends, and just as the excited Olga proposes one more dance, a despatch arrives announcing an assassination attempt on the Tsar. The nihilists have struck and the party comes to a shocked and abrupt conclusion.
Fedora sits down and begins to write a letter denouncing Loris as a murderer and nihilist: the policeman Grech, who has doggedly followed the trail from St Petersburg arrives and tells her that his men are in place, that he has been following Loris, and that Loris received a letter earlier in the day from his brother Valerian. So Fedora adds Valerian’s name to her own letter. She tells Grech that Loris is going to confess his guilt to her that night, and that Grech must position his men in the garden, and give a signal when they are all in place. At the signal, she will dismiss Loris, Grech’s men will seize him and take him to a Russian ship which is moored on the Seine, and the ship will sail immediately for Russia. She seals her letter and gives it to Grech, telling him that it is for General Yariskin. Grech leaves to set up the trap.
Loris now arrives and Fedora tells him of the latest assassination attempt on the Tsar and accuses him of being a nihilist. Loris is horrified – he explains that he did indeed kill the Count, but that the reason was his wife. He tells Fedora that his aged mother had taken on a young woman, Wanda, as a companion. He fell in love with Wanda (una sirena bionda, ‘a golden-haired siren’) and despite his mother’s misgivings, married her secretly, accompanied by only two witnesses, one of whom was the Count. He began to suspect the Count’s interest in Wanda, and his suspicions were confirmed when he saw her maid (the mysterious old woman who rented the pavilion) leaving the Count’s palace. He confronted the maid, who admitted that she had been delivering a letter from Wanda to the Count. He went to the Count to confront him, but the Count was out. Loris, however, retrieved the letter, which was an assignation that same evening at 9pm. Fedora tells him that he might have been mistaken, but he produces a bundle of love letters from the Count to Wanda. Dazed, Fedora reads some of the letters – including one in which her fiancé had written ‘The woman I am to marry is no rival for you: you are the only woman for me, my adored Wanda’. Loris goes on with his story: he learned from the maid the place for the assignation and went there at 9pm. He heard laughter and kisses and burst in on the lovers. The Count fired a gun at Loris, wounding him in the side, and Loris fired back in self-defence. Loris explains that Wanda escaped, but later fell ill and died. He is aware that a woman has been spying on him and asks Fedora if she knows who it might be. Fedora says she does not, and Loris tells her of his sorrow that he can never return to Russia and see his mother again. Fedora is convinced of his innocence and tells him that she will not leave Paris now. He starts to leave, but Fedora hears a whistle, the sign that Grech’s men are in place. She cannot let Loris leave, but he knows that he is being followed and does not want to put her in danger. Distraught, she begs him to stay, and admits that she loves him: they fall into one another’s arms.
Later in the summer. Fedora’s villa in the mountains outside Berne. From a terrace overlooking a valley, the lakeside town of Thun can be seen in the distance.
Estate workers offstage sing of the arrival of spring – the blackcap can be heard singing, the snow is receding, the sound of the cheerful hurdy-gurdy can be heard and even the mountains themselves welcome the spring. Fedora and Loris are idyllically happy together: she is picking flowers, but he is more absorbed in her beauty. As they kiss, Olga appears. She mocks their love gently – she is bored with blue sky, white lambs, crickets … flies – the whole nature thing is getting her down, and she has lost interest in the idea of love. Loris explains that he will go to collect the mail – he is expecting some letters to be forwarded from Paris. As he leaves, de Siriex arrives. He was staying in Thun, realised that Fedora’s villa was close by, hired a bicycle and decided to pay them a surprise visit. A maid brings tea, and de Siriex asks Olga what happened to her pianist. ‘Oh, he was a duck’, she replies, and she, Fedora and de Siriex exchange insulting comments about the Polish virtuoso – Olga complains that he had dumped her, and then de Siriex explains that Lazinski had been a secret agent, assigned by the Imperial Government to Olga to make her talk. Olga changes the subject and suggests a bicycle ride to de Siriex. She goes off to get ready and de Siriex reveals to Fedora the real reason for his visit. He tells her that General Yariskin, acting on information from a spy, has imprisoned a young man suspected of being a nihilist involved in the attempt on the Tsar’s life. He was kept in the dungeons of a castle on the river Neva, but the river has risen, flooding the fortress and drowning the prisoner. Fedora fearfully asks the name of the prisoner – it was Valerian Ipanov, Loris’s brother, whose name she had added to her letter in Paris incriminating Loris. De Siriex continues with his grim story: the news of Valerian’s death caused his mother to suffer a heart attack, and she too is dead. Olga reappears, dressed for the bicycle ride: she challenges de Siriex to a race, with two kisses as the prize, and they leave.
Fedora prays for Loris, and a distant shepherd boy is heard singing a song about a little mountain girl who will never return. Loris returns with the mail: he is looking for a letter from his brother, but the first letter he opens is from Borov, telling him that he has been pardoned. Fedora tries to hide the other letters, but Loris thinks that she is handing them to him. He opens another, this time a telegram from Borov, telling him that Yariskin had received proof of Loris’s guilt, and the name of his accomplice, Valerian, in a letter from a Russian woman living in Paris. Borov goes on to tell of Valerian’s death, but says that he can produce the incriminating letter, which will reveal a signature, and that he is already on his way now with it to meet Loris at the villa. Fedora tries to suggest that the woman might have had good motives for denouncing him, but he cannot believe that she would try to defend such a wicked act. Borov’s carriage is heard arriving and Fedora falls at Loris’s feet begging him to forgive the woman, but he is implacable. In desperation, Fedora opens the Byzantine cross which she wears round her neck and empties the contents of it into her teacup. She begs him to forgive her, and he realises that it was Fedora herself who betrayed him. As he rejects her pleas, she swallows the poison. Borov comes in and Loris, instantly repentant, begs him to save Fedora – but it is too late. She dies in Loris’s arms, telling him that she still wants a last little bit of his love, as the voice of the shepherd boy sings sadly in the distance of the little mountain girl who will never return.
Related OperaStory article can be found on
- Umberto Giordano’s life and his operas
- Victorien Sardou’s life and his links with opera
- The life of the great actress Sarah Bernhardt, who was Sardou’s lover and for whom he originally wrote the role of Fedora
- The life and writings of Fedora’s librettist, Arturo Colautti
- The background to the writing of Giordano’s Fedora
- The difference between Sardou’s play Fedora and Giordano’s opera
- The first cast of Fedora and the opening night of the opera
- Mimosa in the Opera Kitchen
- Fedora’s cup of tea: an exploration of tea in opera
- and much, much more
© Roger Witts 2008