02 October 2023

Detection at the Opera

Given that crime plays such a big part in opera, it is surprising how few detectives show up on the stage. Surely this is in part historical, most operas being composed before the golden age of detective fiction. The many murders, assassinations and betrayals of the genre tend to be handled by private revenge, royal or judicial fiat, or even, as in Lohengrin, by trial by combat.

Though Oedipus of Igor Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex, and Hamlet of Ambroise Thomas's opera of the same name, are exceptions, both based on ancient, even mythic sources. In operas dealing with what were contemporary settings or events, the investigator is hard to find.

So it was with great interest that I noticed a revival of Umberto Giordano's 1898

Fedora, an opera, not about the hat, itself beloved in detective fiction, but a Russian Countess, who tries her hand at detection. The libretto was based on an 1882 play by Victorien Sardou– a drama that opened just four years after the birth of Sherlock Holmes.

Rich, beautiful, fascinating, and impulsive, Fedora is splendidly embodied by Sonya Yoncheva in the Metropolitan Opera's recent production. A fine singer, an excellent actor, and a great beauty, Yoncheva is as close to an ideal Fedora as one is likely to get.

This is important, as Countess Fedora holds central stage in each of the three acts, and without a virtuoso voice and a charismatic presence, the wild melodrama of the opera would be impossible to sustain. The Met's promotions promised romantic passion wrapped around a mystery and proved to be a rare instance of genuine truth in advertising.

Both the romantic passion and the mystery are propelled by the countess. She is much in love with her fiance, one Count Vladimiro, and the opera opens on her first visit to his home. She has barely arrived when the Count, badly wounded, is rushed inside by his coachman and servants. He's been fatally shot. Police are summoned, servants questioned, and a neighbor, Loris Ipanoff, becomes the prime suspect. Motive, unknown, but Nihilist terror is one theory.

When the police fail to apprehend Ipanoff, the grief-stricken and impatient Fedora swears vengeance. Dismissing the efforts of the crime squad, she sets out to find him and gain proof of his guilt. This will be a plot line familiar to many contemporary readers, but I suspect was something of a novelty at the time of the opera's debut performance.

In the second act, Fedora is in Paris along with the suspect, a susceptible romantic who has fallen in love with her, a sentiment Fedora welcomes in two ways. She hopes to use his affection to secure his confession, but she is not entirely immune to Loris Ipanoff's charm, especially when embodied in as handsome a tenor as Piotr Beczala.

At a lavish party in her Parisian residence, Ipanoff at last admits to the shooting, but claims that it was not murder and that he has proof of his real innocence. Fedora demands the evidence, and he promises to present it after the party.

So far, I think Miss Marple, if not Sherlock Holmes, would approve. Fedora has pursued the case with ruthless devotion and a fair bit of dexterity. However, she makes a grievious amateur mistake: she jumps to conclusions and informs the Russian authorities of Ipanoff's confession before seeing his exculpatory evidence.

When he arrives, Ipanoff presents a dramatically different version of the fatal event, and he has a letter from the philandering Count to prove his case. Admitting she was wrong, the Countess confesses her real feelings for Ipanoff, but it is already too late. A tragic ending is ensured and appears promptly in the final act of the opera.

The libretto of Fedora makes a clean sweep of the unfortunate Ipanoff's relatives and dispatches the remorseful Countess for good measure. Modern taste, of course, is kinder to investigating amateurs of both sexes. Think of Hitchcock's North by Northwest, where the female lead switches allegiance and winds up with Cary Grant, a completely understandable move.

Nineteenth century opera audiences were less forgiving, as well as passionately fond of deathbed scenes of beautiful women. The wilful and independent Fedora dies - admittedly most elegantly - restoring the 'natural' order and providing a cautionary tale for any later sopranos with a taste of sleuthing.

The Falling Men, a novel with strong mystery elements, has been issued as an ebook on Amazon Kindle. Also on kindle: The Complete Madame Selina Stories.

The Man Who Met the Elf Queen, with two other fanciful short stories and 4 illustrations, is available from Apple Books

The Dictator's Double, 3 short mysteries and 4 illustrations is available.


  1. An opera I don't know! Thanks for this, Janice. I trained for opera (mezzo) and now call myself a 'fallen soprano' (grin - can''t reach those high Cs anymore.) And oh, doesn't that ring true - the cautionary tale for willful women! (rolls eyes)

  2. Wow! Sounds amazing. And, you're right, there was no forgiveness in 19th century operas or adventure novels - think of the Count of Monte Cristo's first love.

  3. I'm not sure why it fell out of the repertory but it is very entertaining with the right cast, though it is a long way from that to Nancy Drew.

  4. Thank you, Janice Law


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