Thursday, September 15, 2016

An opening night of opulence to austerity with Andrea Chénier under McVicar's microscope at San Francisco Opera

When the curtain was raised for the opening performance of San Francisco Opera's new production of Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chénier, Act I's opulent palatial salon setting shimmering in crystal and gold must have overwhelmingly gratified the well-dressed and gowned patrons in attendance for the 94th season opening gala. The ornate War Memorial Opera House too looked splendid, decked out in festoons of red, white and blue, lending as much to patriotic fervour alongside a rousing rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" as to the opera's 18th century French Revolution setting.

Yonghoon Lee as Andrea Chénier
Warm words of welcome came from incoming General Director, Michael Shivlock. And when the name of the company's Music Director and conductor was sorted out after another high profile company representative simply forgot who it was, Maestro Nicola Luisotti, unfazed, responded with music rich in poetry, texture and beauty crafted by comforting and precise playing by the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.

In this co-production with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (in which Jonas Kaufmann performed the title role) and National Centre for the Performing Arts, Beijing, it took tenor Yonghoon Lee's arrival as Andrea Chénier, in his San Francisco Opera debut, to spark up the stage and rectify the poor projection from some preceding principals. Lee set himself apart almost immediately with his immense vocal engine.

As the steadfast poet Chénier, Lee showed beautiful gradation of the voice with phrasing that drew the listener in with every breath interval. When he reached fortissimo heights, Lee did so with thrilling intensity without ever overexerting. When the initially reluctant Chénier makes his poetic declamation shaming the aristocracy for the sufferings of the poor in "Un dì all' azzurro spazio" Lee delivered it with impact that sang out to our own modern day privileged sector of society.

And while the spectacle of Robert Jones's lavish sets and Jenny Tiramani's sumptuous period-perfect costumes dazzled under Adam Silverman's crisp, effective lighting (though sometimes coming across too sharply lit in Acts II and III), the narrative feels piecemeal as it seesaws between the political and personal without feeling dramatically complete. As the opulence gives say to austerity, I was, however, struck with a delayed appreciation in the way director David McVicar approached the work.

Anna Pirozzi as Maddalena di Coigny
We presume a convincing portrayal of love will unfold between Chénier and the aristocratic daughter of the Contessa di Coigny, Maddalena, who soprano Anna Pirozzi, also making her house and American debut, rendered with a rich and lustrous tone. Pirozzi shaped a light and clean top and pushed to high-geared power while maintaining purity of tone in Act II's duet with Lee. Then in Act 3's "La mamma morta", the voice streamed with emotive wealth, not at all showing any sign of sickness despite the pre-performance announcement.

Complications arise with the di Coigny estate servant-cum-revolutionary leader Carlo Gérard, who has long loved Maddalena and drives the tragedy forward in the ensuing upheaval. As Gérard, baritone George Gagnidze (principal number three in their San Francisco Opera debut), brought rich dimension and authority to his character, his deep oaky resonance and vocal fluidity increasingly making their mark along the way.

But Chénier's love seemed unreciprocated by Maddalena as expressed by the subtleties and chemistry at play and, though incredulous, perhaps McVicar's re-examination of Luigi Illica's libretto was saying something very different to expectation. With Chénier's choice not to flee Paris after losing the favour of the revolutionaries by denouncing Robespierre, Maddelena, broken and desperate, loses her safe haven after his subsequent conviction of death. You get the sense that Madalena is more willing to go to the guillotine to release herself from a life in semi-hiding that punishes her than from her loosely expressed love for a now doomed Chénier. If I'm wrong, it at least felt more gratifying to see it this way.

George Gagnidze as Carlo Gérard
The stage wasn't short on other memorable performances. Schemingly lurking and nimbly prancing about, Joel Sorensen brought great individuality to his role as the spy, L'Incredible. David Pershall's solid bass braced Chénier's robustness with authority as his friend Roucher.

J'Nai Bridges gave fulsome mezzo-soprano depth and sympathetic heart as Maddelena's maid Bersi, Robert Pomakov was a sturdy Mathieu and Catherine Cook's haughty Contessa di Coigny entertainingly tickled with acerbic tone of voice that matched her offside condescending expressions.

Accompanied with animated assuredness, the San Francisco Opera Chorus provided excellent vocal balance and it was hard not to tell that the San Francisco Opera Dance Corps, distinguished in style, weren't singing along too as the total effect bonded so seamlessly.

There's so much on offer on the musical, vocal and visual front to make up for Andrea Chénier's bumpy narrative journey. McVicar even gives it a little more worth to look at it further under the microscope.

San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House
Until 30th September

Production photos: Cory Weaver

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