Saturday, October 01, 2016

To The Guillotine with Andrea Chenier

In 1975, during those years before opera supertitles, I attended the San Francisco Opera in Dress Circle standing room and watched a remarkable young Spanish tenor named Placido Domingo in a blood-and-thunder late 19th century Italian opera by Giordano about the French Revolution called Andrea Chenier. In the final act of Lotfi Mansouri's lavish production, as prison walls flew away to reveal a blood-red backdrop framing a guillotine, Domingo took the hand of his beloved, Maddalena, and they walked to their deaths singing a heartbreaking duet followed by a sudden blackout. Pandemonium and much applause ensued. As an opera newbie, little did I know that this was as good as it gets with Chenier: rare, golden age singing, and a libretto that is probably better when it is mostly unintelligible.

There was a revival of the same production in 1992, looking tattered and worse for wear after touring for two decades, with an inadequate cast and silly staging by a hack assistant director. Flash forward another twenty years and the Italian melodrama has returned to the War Memorial Opera House in a sumptuous new co-production with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden from director David McVicar. It would be nice to report that this month's run of performances reignited my enthusiasm for the opera, but instead it confirmed that I never need to see Chenier again unless the voice and charisma of a young Domingo is somehow reincarnated. Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee above as the French Revolutionary poet certainly has a lovely voice but he was a complete cipher onstage. Half the time you couldn't even tell if he was present among all the production bric-a-brac, with seemingly dozens of subsidiary characters running around advancing the absurd, complicated plot. Even with all the activity going on, the love-at-first-sight of Chenier and Maddalena should be made clear and compelling at all times, something McVicar and his singers failed to accomplish.

It was a bit sad because there was so much wasted talent onstage. Mezzo J'Nai Bridges above was very good as the heroine's servant who becomes a prostitute so they can eat. In the first act, Catherine Cook as Contessa di Coigny, the subject of Maddalena's big aria, La Momma Morta, gave one of her reliably funny, dramatic performances. Baritone David Pershall as Chenier's friend Roucher was always a welcome presence, and a whole host of Adler singers took up small roles with gusto, but the entire production was polite, unconvincing, and finally ridiculous. Even supernumerary Charlie Lichtman, with two named parts in the program, couldn't save it.

The SF Opera Chorus as bloodthirsty revolutionaries were fun to watch and hear but were not particularly credible, and the orchestra under Music Director Nicola Luisotti played with passion and fire but too often overwhelmed the singers.

The most interesting performance and the best singing was by baritone George Gagnidze as Carlo Gerard, who goes from disgruntled butler to revolutionary ringleader to Scarpia-style villain who wants to despoil Maddelena to honorable mensch in the finale. It wasn't his fault that the character makes no sense.

The Italian soprano Anna Pirozzi as Maddalena also has a lovely voice, but there was so little chemistry between her and Yonghoon Lee that it eventually became comical. "Hold me!" the supertitles proclaimed as she sang in prison before her self-sacrificing death with Chenier, but Lee stood upstage ignoring her while looking like he was ready to wander off to dinner. The whole sorry spectacle felt like Opera as Kitsch. (All production photos by Cory Weaver.)


Hattie said...

Great review. I really wonder about all the money and effort going into productions like this.

Michael Strickland said...

Dear Hattie: The real irony, which I didn't bring up, is that this was the Opening Night Opera of the season, where San Francisco's version of Old Society struts their stuff at $15,000 per person dinners before and after the actual opera. The theme this year was "La Revolution et L'Amour," which felt so tin-eared in terms of current political realities that it made me laugh. I was hoping there would be guillotines at the exits to the tent parties. And that was part of the problem with the opera, too. It starts sympathetic to the poor, starving peasants but quickly devolves into a story about a beleaguered aristocrat with a cute poet lover who die together because of the excesses of those dirty sans-culottes in charge of La Revolution.