The venerable Italian conductor Nello Santi at age 83 remains a favorite of Zurich Opera audiences, his appearances drawing sustained ovations
[Below: Zurich Opera conductor Nello Santi; resized image of a publicity photograph, from www.orchestradellasvizzeraitaliana.ch.]
Thus, it was with more than routine interest that I scheduled a performance of Giordano’s “Andrea Chénier” in Zurich, the first time in 22 years that I had seen Santi conduct that core work of Italian opera’s verismo period.
The work centers around the impact of the French Revolution on the lives of three people.
The first, Maddalena di Coigny, a daughter of the noble classes, is in peril of her life throughout the opera.
The second, is Carlo Gerard, a footman in the service of the Coignys until he assumed power during the Revolution’s Reign of Terror, but, whether footman or officer of the revolution, who loved Maddalena from afar.
The third, Andrea, Chénier, is a poet whose assistance of Maddalena after the Revolution marked him for execution by the guillotine.
Wagner’s Impact on Verismo
“Andrea Chénier” shares with the other verismo works the strong influence of Richard Wagner’s ideas about utilizing the full orchestra as a participant in the drama. Typical of the style are the broad melodic themes that at melodramatic moments are played fortissimo by the entire orchestra.
On occasion, such as when the spirit of revolutionary times seizes hold of the orchestra in the opera’s second act, the principal singers are communicating with a melodic line independent of what is being heard orchestrally.
As a result, verismo operas, including the most familiar of Puccini, require spinto singers of heavier weight to hold their own against the orchestra. The trio of principals in Zurich easily met this requirement.
Yonghoon Lee’s Chénier
The poet Andrea Chénier was sung by South Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee, whose true spinto voice has the baritonal heft that makes the dramatic tenor voice so exciting.
[Below: Yonghoon Lee was Andrea Chénier; resized image of a publicity photograph.]
I had reported on his Calaf in Munich [Yonghoon Lee’s Calaf Tames Theorin’s Time-Traveling Turandot – Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, November 28, 2012]. His power voice fills an important niche among performing operatic tenors of the present day.
Unlike Calaf, whose self-confidence permits him to bet his head on his ability to solve riddles, Chénier is a fatalist, ignoring personal danger at a time when one needs command of all one’s wits.
With a big aria in each of the four acts, and minimal opportunities for the tenor to display his acting skills, Lee’s performance was as close to the classic “Italian tenor” as one sees these days.
His mesmerizing, forceful arias were delivered in a melodramatic fervor that clicked with the Zurich audience, who gave him sustained ovations throughout and after the performance.
The gentler passages of the fourth act Come un bel di di maggio showed that Lee was in tune with Chénier’s softer side.
Martina Serafin’s Maddalena
Similarly, Martina Serafin was a sumptuous Maddalena, a favorite part of the mid-20th century legends Renata Tebaldi and Maria Callas. (I saw Tebaldi sing it in two performances at the San Francisco Opera.)
[Below: Martina Serafin (here as the Countess in a Los Angeles Opera production of Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro”) was Maddalena di Coigny; edited image, based on a Robert Millard photograph, courtesy of the Los Angeles Opera.]
Lucio Gallo’s Gerard
The great third act baritone aria Nemico della patria was sufficient to attract the great 20th century baritones.
(I saw Ettore Bastianini in the role twice at the San Francisco Opera and later, paired with Placido Domingo’s Chénier, Cornell MacNeil.)
Gallo delivered both his first and third act arias – the first certain that revolutionary change in French society will bring about a better life, the second disillusioned about a social movement that destroys its own.
[Below: Baritone Lucio Gallo was Carlo Gerard; resized image of a publicity photograph.]
Grischa Asagaroff’s Set Designs
This was a revival of a Grischa Asagaroff production, designed around a single set – the interior of a stage-filling half dome with a balcony.
The space served as the ancien regime chateau of the Coignys and later for two scenes of revolutionary Paris, and finally the prison in which condemend prisoners await their execution.
[Below: Grischa Asagaroff, here at the Opera Capitole de Toulouse; resized image of a photograph from www.depeche.fr.]
The first act depicted the nobility dressed principally in white (with grey furs and other accoutrements).
The nobility moved through their dance steps surreally, as if they were part of the Olympia doll scenes in many productions of Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffmann”.
[Below: an evening at the Coignys chateau; resized image of a Suzanne Schwiertz photograph, courtesy of the Zurich Opernhaus.]
Others in the Cast
The opera abounds in character parts, notably Alessandro Fantoni as the sinister spy, L’Incredible. Reinard Mayr was Fouquier-Tinville, Kresimir Strazanac was Pietro Fleville. Yurly Tsiple was Roucher, Andreas Winkler was L’Abate, and Dimitri Pkhaladze was Schmidt.
Judith Schmidt was an eye- and ear-catching Bersi. Of the two roles that Stefania Kaluza sang, I was most impressed by her Old Madelon.
Re-evaluating “Andrea Chenier”
This is an opera that wears its heart on its sleeve, an outgrowth of the energetic incorporation of Wagnerian ideas into Italian opera (many of which the reigning maestro, Giuseppe Verdi, disapproved).
These ideas that incorporated the full orchestra into story-telling themes a la Wagner became established in such works as Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda”, then in the works of Puccini, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Giordano, Cilea and Montemezzi.
[Below: the third act of the Asagaroff production of “Andrea Chenier” in which the revolutionary tribunal takes place in the half dome unit set that served as the first act Coigny chateau; resized image, based on a Suzanne Schwiertz photograph, courtesy of the Zurich Opernhaus.]
To the profound dislike of some opera critics, the verismo operas emphasize sentiment and melodrama, which seems to embarrass some critics that prefer that opera be more intellectual, avoiding any semblance of tugging at the audience’s heartstrings.
But Zurich Opernhaus and Maestro Santi obviously know what audiences like. The evening ended in a blazing emotional response from the audience, including a long period of the the rhythmic clapping that one associates with a very happy Swiss audience (the “Gotterdammerung” two nights earlier in Geneva got a similar response.)
This is the third time I have reviewed a Santi performance in Zurich. [See my review of a previous Santi-Asagaroff collaboration: Zurich and San Francisco: A Tale of Two “Forzas”. See also No Norina: A “Don Pasquale” Showstopper in Zurich – September 23, 2007.]
“Andrea Chenier” position in the standard repertory
If “Andrea Chenier” gets critical trashing but standing ovations from those who buy the opera tickets, it augurs for taking critical opinions of the work with a grain of salt.
I recall my very first live performance of the opera in San Francisco with the “Golden Age” cast of Richard Tucker as Chenier, Tebaldi as Maddalena, and Bastianini as Gerard.
The “newspaper of record” critic has just excoriated the terrible decision-making process of General Director Kurt Herbert Adler for mounting the work. But did they expect me to stay home?
Unpersuaded by the critic’s screams of perfidy, I was there, discussing the critical reaction with one of the old opera hands.
“Just remember, William, he said, the critics deeply resent that they could not have been there in 1896 to savage the opera at its first hearing. They cannot comment on the performance without devoting half of their review to what’s wrong with Giordano”.
This, of course, was only a few years after University of California Berkeley profession Robert Kerman had published his indictment of Puccini’s “Tosca” as a “shabby little shocker” and predicted it would virtually disappear from the opera repertory.
It was, therefore, of some interest that I read the New York Times Review of the current Met production of “Andrea Chenier” in which the reviewer more or less makes the argument, that we don’t need “Andrea Chenier” because the characters drawn in the operas “Tosca” and Verdi’s “Rigoletto” are so much better.
So much for variety in the offerings of the standard repertory!
Yet, as long as there are great spinto tenors, who are attracted to a “title role” opera with a major tenor opera in every one of its four acts, and a baritone who eyes Gerard’s two great arias, and a soprano who wants to sing La mamma mort and the ovation-producing duet with Chenier at opera’s end, this work should never go away.
The Zurich audience had it right. This was a great experience in true verismo, masterfully conducted and sung.