The San Francisco Opera opened its 2016-17 season with an elegant production of the verismo classic, Giordano’s “Andrea Chénier”, about the trajectory of three lives during the events of the French Revolution.
The occasion was the North American unveiling of Sir David McVicar’s eye-catching staging, a co-production of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, the San Francisco Opera and Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts.
[Below: an evening of music and unexpected events takes place in the di Coigny mansion in the early days of the French Revolution; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
British set designer Robert Jones and British costume designer Jenny Tiramani were McVicar’s collaborators in a production that was cinematic in its attention to detail.
The Act I sets evoked the glory of the elite classes during the ancien régime, while the last three acts reflected the spirit of the tricolor and la patrie.
[Below: the Act III sets; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
In McVicar’s staging, the Revolution becomes the main event, into which the affairs of the three main characters – Chénier, Maddalena di Coigny and Carlo Gérard – are enmeshed. The melodramatic fate of the two lovers, Chénier and Maddalena, are collateral damage to a historical movement (as Robespierre and others in command of the Revolution at that moment in time will themselves later become).
[Below: Andrea Chénier (Yonghoon Lee, center) is defiant before the revolutionary tribunal; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Yonghoon Lee’s Andrea Chénier
The evening was the occasion for the San Francisco Opera debuts of several artists, including South Korean spinto tenor Yonghoon Lee in the title role. Possessing one of the larger contemporary voices singing the weighty roles of the spinto repertory, Lee’s San Francisco Opera debut proved auspicious.
With an aria in each of the four acts, and the dramatic final duet with the lead soprano, Chénier is one of the plum tenor roles in the Italian repertory, and Lee performed the role with distinction.
[Below: Andrea Chénier (Yonghoon Lee) receives yet another love-letter from an unknown correspondent; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Lee proved a convincing actor, portraying a fatalist who stubbornly ignores the dangers that surround him and injudiciously ignores a friend’s advice to flee the country.
I had seen Lee sing the role admirably in Europe [see True Verismo: Nello Santi Conducts Yonghoon Lee, Martina Serafin, Lucio Gallo in “Andrea Chénier” – Zurich Opera, May 4, 2014], but found his appearance in San Francisco, under McVicar’s felicitous direction, even more satisfying.
Anna Pirozzi’s Maddalena di Coigny
Italian soprano Anna Pirozzi in her San Francisco Opera debut, was a vocally lustrous Maddalena, affecting in her third act aria La Mamma Morta and a strong partner to Lee’s Chénier in their final duet, sung before each is called to the guillotine.
[Below: Maddalena (Anna Pirozzi, right) has taken the place of a condemned prisoner so that she might die with her beloved, Andrea Chénier (Yonghoon Lee, left); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
George Gagnidze’s Carlo Gérard
Baritone George Gagnidze, one of several contemporary international stars who hail from the Republic of Georgia, was an authoritative Gérard.
Recognized as one of the world’s leading baritones, this was his first appearance in the War Memorial Opera House.
[Below: Gérard George Gagnidze, right, on floor) is threatened by Andrea Chénier (Yonghoon Lee, left), whom Gérard has denounced to the revolutionary authorities; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
J’Nai Bridges’ Bersi, Joel Sorensen’s Incredibile, other Cast Members and the Musical Performance
Washington State mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges was a vivacious Bersi, a revolutionary, who, as Maddalena’s former maid has helped shield Maddalena’s identity and whereabouts.
[Below: Bersi (J’Nai Bridges, front left) is on a mission near the bust of the Revolutionary martyr, Marat; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The role of Robespierre’s spy, called The Incredibile, provided another opportunity for character tenor Joel Sorensen to show off his ability to project small but significant parts into dramatically effective portraits.
[Below: Joel Sorensen as The Incredibile; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Texas baritone David Pershall was Roucher. Texas mezzo-soprano Jill Grove was the old woman, Madelon, and Illinois mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook was the Contessa di Coigny.
New York tenor Alex Boyer was the Abbé, Illinois bass-baritone Brad Walker was Dumas, and bass-baritone Matthew Stump was Fouquier-Tinville. Minnesota bass Anthony Reed was Schmidt, Connecticut baritone Anders Frohlich was the Major-Domo, and California dancers Laura Alexich and Michael Levine performed in the first act pastoral ballet.
The conductor was San Francisco Opera’s music director, the Italian Maestro Nicola Luisotti. The San Francisco Opera orchestra performed Giordano’s lusciously melodic orchestral score with its customary brilliant sound.
The San Francisco Opera Chorus performed with distinction, singing the chorally-rich Giordano in McVicar’s inventive staging with substantive acting requirements for each individual chorister.
One other artist deserves mention. In three separate decades the San Francisco Opera had assigned the role of the harpsichord-playing Flando Fiorinelli to its long-time prompter, the late Philip Eisenberg (who actually played an instrument specially built for the occasion). For the McVicar production, the Opera secured the services of Matthew Erikson (the San Francisco Opera Magazine editor) to play that part (although not the harpsichord).
Thoughts on the McVicar Staging
McVicar is a savvy director, who digs deeply into the essence of each opera he mounts. By giving prominence to the Revolutionary fervor in “Andrea Chénier”, McVicar emphasizes the power of Giordano’s orchestration, many of whose highlights correspond to the sweep of the Revolution.
The opera’s performance history in the century after its 1896 debut emphasized the vocal performances of the principal artists. The Revolutionary elements were local color, like the gypsies in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore”. In fact, both the Zurich Opera’s 2013 production, mentioned above, and the last “Andrea Chénier” production created by the San Francisco Opera (staged by Lotfi Mansouri to Skalicki’s sets and costumes in 1975, last performed in 1992) contained elements of fantasy.
McVicar makes the Revolution real, vibrant, exciting and dangerous. By giving a realistic presentation of a point in time in the French Revolution, McVicar has unlocked the power of Giordano’s verismo.
I recommend the production and cast enthusiastically, both to the veteran opera-goer and the person new to opera. See also Six or so Reasons to Experience “Andrea Chénier” at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House.