Umberto Giordano's Fedora, based upon the play by Victorien Sardou, premiered just two and a half years after the composer's immensely successful Andrea Chénier. At Milan's Teatro Lirico, the protagonist was Gemma Bellinconi and her Loris was a young tenor named Enrico Caruso. Although hostile at the beginning, the audience slowly gained enthusiasm, and by the middle of the second act Caruso was obliged to repeat his aria. At the end, success was complete and within the next few years the opera was presented throughout Italy, Europe, and other parts of the world. While it failed to sustain its initial success, it has remained popular in its native country and enjoys continuing favor among sopranos who can both muster personal and vocal glamour and command the stage. Indeed, since the work's technical demands are fairly modest, it has become a harbor of refuge to aging prima donnas whose voices are still distinctive, even if less agile than they may have been. The solitary high C (optional) makes Fedora a viable role for dramatic mezzos, and many of its most riveting interpreters have been from the lower voice range. Tenors, too, despite second billing, relish the score's most memorable moment, a short, long-lined aria ("Amor to vieta") which unfolds with a fresh-minted lyricism few audiences can resist.
For a librettist, Giordano chose Arturo Colautti, a novelist and poet who later provided Francesco Cilea the text for his Adriana Lecouvreur (a work bearing certain similarities to Fedora). The Sardou play upon which Colautti based his libretto had long been of interest to Giordano, who felt it to be perfectly consonant with the verismo style.
Fedora, a Russian Princess, finds her fiancé Count Vladimir assassinated and swears chastity so long as his murderer is at large and unpunished. From Vladimir's St. Petersburg apartments to Fedora's Parisian home and thence to her Bernese Oberland villa, the settings are exotic, the characters aristocratic, the situations wrapped in intrigue. Count Loris Ipanoff, whom Fedora is certain killed her intended, admits that it was indeed he, not as a political activist, but a husband pursuing his wife's lover. Fedora, who has both ensnared Loris in a romantic involvement and has found herself attracted to him, learns the complete truth only after she dispatches a letter to the Russian embassy detailing Loris' confession and adding a paragraph about the arrest of Loris' brother, Valerian, that seems to implicate both in the Nihilist movement. Following a blissful interlude, Loris and Fedora are visited by the consequences of her letter. Loris learns that his brother has drowned in a subterranean cell and that their mother has died, grief-stricken. When Fedora pleads for forgiveness, Loris realizes that it was she who had sent the vengeful letter and curses her. Fedora takes poison. An antidote fails, Loris learns the entire story and Fedora dies, finally forgiven.