Arts & Events

New: ANDREA CHÉNIER: A 1st Rate Cast in a 3rd Rate Opera

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Saturday September 10, 2016 - 10:59:00 AM

Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier premiered at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala on March 28, 1896 and enjoyed a smashing popular success. Ever since, however, Andrea Chénier has received far more critical barbs than accolades. Giordano’s music has been skewered as “a score of the third class – music of shreds and patches, bombastic and crude, fueled by hot air.” I would have to agree with this evaluation. Nonetheless, Andrea Chénier does contain a few lovely musical numbers, and these were splendidly sung by San Francisco Opera’s Opening Night cast. All told, this Andre Chénier offered a first rate cast in a third rate opera.  

Giordano’s Andre Chénier is usually grouped with the operas of Mascagni, Leoncavallo, and, yes, Puccini as examples of the verismo movement, an Italian literary and musical movement emphasizing realistic characters drawn from the lower classes and living out their often poverty-stricken lives with brutal passions. Of course, the milieu depicted in Andrea Chénier is an aristocratic one – the Parisian salon of the Comtessa di Coigny at the time of the French Revolution and Terror. But in some ways the most complex and most interesting character is a man of the people – Carlo Gérard, a low-born servant who is footman to the Comtessa di Coigny.  

Sung here by baritone George Gagnidze, who, like the other two principals in this production, was making his SF Opera debut, Gérard dominates this opera’s opening scene. Inspired by the mob of common people agitating outside the Coigny chateau, and inspired as well by the poet Andrea Chénier’s stirring improvisation of poetic love for a France that will overthrow the rule of the aristocrats, Gérard allows the mob to invade the Comtessa di Coigny’s party, and he angrily declares his hatred of the frivolous aristocrats, prophesizing that “This is the hour of your death.” Here and throughout the opera, George Gagnidze, who was trained in his native Tiblisi, sang with beautiful tone and great passion in a role Plácido Domingo considered a far more interesting one than that of Andrea Chénier himself – which latter role Domingo performed here in 1975. One of the things that makes Gérard so complex a character is the fact that he has been secretly in love with Maddalena, the daughter of the Comtessa di Coigny, whom he has known since they played together as children. Moreover, when Gérard leaves the employ of the Comtessa di Coigny and becomes one of the leaders of the Revolution, he finds himself conflicted regarding Maddalena’s burgeoning love for the poet Andrea Chénier. In a fit of jealousy, Gérard initially writes an indictment against Chénier as an “enemy of the people,” but he publicly admits that his indictment is full of lies, and he henceforth works to save Andrea Chénier from execution and he endeavors to bring Maddalena and Chénier together.  

As Chénier, South Korean-born tenor Yonghoon Lee made an impressive SF Opera debut, singing with clarion tonality and considerable power. He also cut a fine figure as the idealistic poet who all too quickly jumps to false conclusions when his poet-friend Roucher tells Chénier his mysterious female admirer (Maddalena) is most likely a sordid courtesan. As Roucher, baritone David Pershall made the most of a small but dynamic role, singing with confidence and gusto. 

The role of Maddalena was admirably sung by Italian dramatic soprano Anna Pirozzi, who was also making her SF Opera debut. Pirozzi gave a wonderfully nuanced performance, singing in hushed pianissimo in some passages and all-out fortissimo in others. Her ravishing high notes were particularly spectacular in the opera’s closing scene, where Chénier and Maddalena link arms to go together to the guillotine. This scene, by the way, has dramatic echoes of Wagner’s Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde. Pirozzi is definitely a soprano to reckon with on the international scene. In the role of Maddalena’s mother, the Comtessa di Coigny, veteran mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook was excellent as always. Likewise, as Maddalena’s friend Bersi, mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges gave a fine vocal and dramatic performance.  

Giordano’s Andrea Chénier contains a great number of small but important roles. Among them, baritone Anders Fröhlich was a fine Major-Domo, tenor Edward Nelson ably sang the role of the musician Fléville, tenor Alex Boyer was excellent as The Abbé, mezzo-soprano Jill Grove was outstanding as Madelon, bass-baritone Matthew Stump ably sang the role of the public prosecutor Fouquier-Tinville, and tenor Joel Sorenson gave a wonderful performance as the spy/informer for the Revolution who is known only as L’Incroyable/The Incredible. 

The orchestra was conducted by Nicola Luisotti, who kept the opera moving at a brisk pace. The director was David McVicar, who did a particularly fine job of staging this opera’s opening salon scene with its mincing aristocrats dancing a gavotte. Sets were designed by Robert Jones and costumes were designed by Jenny Tiramani. A brief ballet pas de deux was beautifully performed by dancers Laura Alexis and Michael Levine with choreography by Andrew George.