Opera Warhorses

An appreciation and analysis of the 'Standard Repertory' of opera

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A Second Look: Sir David McVicar and “Andrea Chénier” at the San Francisco Opera – September 25, 2016

September 30th, 2016

Earlier this month, I had anticipated [Six or so Reasons to Experience “Andrea Chénier” at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House] and then reviewed [Review: Yonghoon Lee is an Eloquent Andrea Chénier in McVicar’s Cinematic Staging – San Francisco Opera, September 9, 2016] Sir David McVicar’s production of “Andrea Chénier”.

My review was of the San Francisco Opera’s 2016-17 season opening night, which was the company debuts for tenor Yonghoon Lee (Chénier), Anna Pirozzi (Maddalena), George Gagnidze (Gérard) and J’Nai Bridges (Bersi).

[Below: Yonghoon Lee as Andrea Chénier; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy o fthe San Francisco Opera.]


Two weeks later I attended the fifth of the opera’s six scheduled performances, permitting further assessments of both the musical performance and the theatrical production.

This was my third time seeing Yonghoon Lee perform the role of Andrea Chénier, having seen him at the Zurich (Switzerland) Opera, and having seen him perform other roles in Munich and Chicago. Assaying the role of the headstrong poet whose self-abs0rption is a disastrous trait in a time of revolutionary turmoil, Lee, possessing a healthy spinto tenor voice, was an effective Chénier.

[Below: Soprano Anna Pirozzi as Maddalena di Coigny in Sir David McVicar’s San Francisco Opera production of Giordano’s “Andrea Chénier”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Entirely new to me was soprano Anna Pirozzi, who impressed me in the quintessentially dramatic verismo soprano of Maddalena. Pirozzi’s repertory also includes a range of Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi roles.

I had the occasion to ask her about her further ventures into the verismo repertory [see Rising Stars: An Interview with Anna Pirozzi] and was encouraged by her pursuit of some of the roles that few have assayed since the retirement of Renata Tebaldi at the end of the 1960s, such as the title roles of Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur” and Catalani’s “La Wally”.

[Below: George Gagnidze as Carlo Gérard; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


It was my first time seeing Gagnidze in a verismo role. His solid performance projected Gérard’s determination to further his own aims while advancing the Revolution, as well as the character’s flexibility to alter his own stratagems in the fast-changing environment.

Every member of the comprimario cast proved effective in this production, led by a vivacious performance by J’Nai Bridges as the ancien régime lady’s maid Bersi turned revolutionary.

[Below: J’Nai Bridges as Bersi; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


In my previous review, I had highlighted several of the outstanding performances. Also notable was the Catherine Cook’s portrait of the aristocratic (and fussy) Madame di Coigny, who prides herself in having a plain dress to wear when she dispenses charity to the poor.

Cook, a former Adler fellow, who recently celebrated 25 years with the San Francisco Opera, has emerged as an effective practitioner of the art of the “character” mezzo-soprano.

[Below: Madame di Coigny (Catherine Cook, right) exchanges pleasantries with a guest; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Also impressive were the performances of Robert Pomakov as Mathieu, the realist who in vain tries to persuade Chénier to swallow his pride and accept a forged passport to save his life, and the debuting David Pershall as Roucher.

[Below: Roucher (David Pershall, right) visits the condemned Andrea Chénier (Yonghoon Lee, left); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


The McVicar Production

The San Francisco Opera, in their website promotion of their “Andrea Chénier”, picked up a line from my first review – that “the Revolution is real, vibrant, exciting and dangerous” – for their leadoff quote from the press corps’ comments. (Each of the other critics’ comments referenced one of the three principals.)

It’s my belief that McVicar’s production provides a visual representation of the Revolution as simultaneously elegant and incendiary as the paintings by Jacques-Louis David during Robespierre’s ascendancy or the Revolutionary costumes that David, as Robespierre’s Minister of Art, himself designed.

[Below: Jacques-Louis David’s “The Death of Marat”‘; edited image of a painting in the Royal Museums of the Arts of Belgium.]


The production complements the rousing Revolutionary anthems that permeate Giordano’s orchestration. (The San Francisco Opera Orchestra, one of the finest opera orchestras in the world, proved itself one the drama’s principal characters. Under Maestro Nicola Luisotti, the orchestra exuded revolutionary fervor.)

San Francisco was the second of the three cities that will perform this production (after London and prior to Beijing). The production debuted at Covent Garden with superstar tenor Jonas Kaufmann in the title role, who represents the tradition of reviving the opera when a “big name” tenor is available.

San Francisco Opera revived the opera in the mid-20th century for Mario Del Monaco and Franco Corelli (the latter did not appear due to illness) and created its latest new production in 1975 for Placido Domingo.

Obviously, a four act work with an aria for the lead tenor in each act and a famous duet with soprano at opera’s end needs and benefits from major league spinto voices for its three principal parts. But there is a theatrical validity to the opera that suggests that it is a mistake to write it off as nothing more than a superstar vehicle.

The verismo operas, of which “Andrea Chénier” is an iconic example, blend vocal and symphonic music to tell a dramatic story. There currently exist extraordinary men and women of the theater who have become adept at creating and directing exciting productions that tap the inherent theatricality of these works.

Ripe for revival are works that have previously been seen on the War Memorial Opera House stage – Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur”, Montemezzi’s “L’Amore dei Tre Re” and Zandonai’s “Francesca da Rimini” (the latter two relevant to an audience that watches HBO’s Game of Thrones.)

With strong casts as was seen in San Francisco Opera’s “Andrea Chénier”, the superb San Francisco Opera chorus and orchestra, and directors of the caliber of Sir David McVicar, the canon of verismo works should be explored anew.

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