A fine cast overcomes weaknesses of score and conductor in OONY’s “Andrea Chenier”
Opera as a vehicle of revolution is an enduring notion. Beethoven’s Fidelio, Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, Verdi’s Don Carlos—all bristle with calls for freedom and denunciations of tyranny.
But opera has at least as often expressed wariness of social upheavals. Mozart’s Don Giovanni warns of the chaos that ensues when libertà is construed as mere license, and Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites (to be revived in May at the Metropolitan Opera) and Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles both grapple with the French Revolution’s human toll.
And then there is Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, performed in concert by the Opera Orchestra of New York at Avery Fisher Hall on Sunday. Drawn loosely from history, it centers on the poet André Chénier, a political moderate who was executed in 1794 only days before the Terror ended. Chénier’s world premiere took place at La Scala in 1896, thirty-odd years after Italy had achieved national unity on paper, when dreams of fellowship and glory had faded with the festering unrest and hollow pomp of Savoyard rule.
In Giordano’s opera, Robespierre and La Marseillaise become bits of couleur locale; the masses are fickle and bloodthirsty; and political murder is not an act (or miscarriage) of justice but instead “the triumph of love.” Indeed, Luigi Illica’s libretto boils down Tristan and Isolde’s Liebesnacht to a few syrupy clichés: “Love! Death! It comes with the dawn!” One critic has decried the “touristic” spirit in which Giordano and some of his fin-de-siècle Italian peers treated social and historical themes. Ending with a volley of crowd-pleasing high notes belted out by lovers who stride hand in hand to the guillotine, Andrea Chénier is opera’s Disneyland Paris take on the French Revolution.
On Sunday those final notes rang out less lustily than usual. Roberto Alagna in the title role and Kristin Lewis as his beloved Maddalena were stretched beyond their vocal limits—understandably, given that they had sung their long and heavy parts under the baton of OONY music director Alberto Veronesi, who seemed intent on drowning out his singers at any cost.
The performance had ground to a halt for several tense moments in Act I when Alagna waved his arms at the maestro and stopped singing, the two locking horns over some issue of tempo or ensemble. In light of Alagna’s history—in 2006 he walked out of Aida mid-scene at La Scala—the episode cast a pall over Sunday’s proceedings, during which the tenor and other singers continued to shoot the occasional pointed glance at the podium.
In the event, Alagna sang well, with the caveat that the role of Chénier is several sizes too large for his once-velvety lyric tenor. The raw, metallic edge of his voice in its current state helped him make himself heard over the din raised by Veronesi. Alagna unfurled the long phrases of Un dì all’azzurro spazio with ease, boldly attacked the high climaxes of Sì, fui soldato, and brought both fire and abandon to Come un bel dì di maggio, all dispatched with a sure sense of style. Sadly, he paid little heed to Lewis’s Maddalena until the opera’s final moments, though the two cut superbly romantic figures on stage.
A great-hearted artist, Lewis filled her every phrase in La mamma morta with passion, import, and the dignity befitting a noblewoman. Two traits prevented her Maddalena from being an unqualified success: Lewis’s vocal strength is her plush, blazing upper register, while the role is centrale, as Italians say; and her enunciation is muddy, a major weakness in an opera as long and wordy as Chénier.
Baritone George Petean as Gérard won a roaring ovation with calls for an encore after Nemico della patria, and one would have welcomed the chance to savor his patrician artistry for a few more minutes. Petean studied with Giorgio Zancanaro, among others, and he shares with his eminent teacher a compact, penetrating tone, seamlessly produced in all registers, and a crisp and potent way with words. Petean recently sang Simon Boccanegra in Rome under Riccardo Muti for the Verdi bicentennial; here’s hoping that New Yorkers will have opportunities to hear him again soon and in high-profile assignments.
Chénier brims with grand arias for the principal singers and also zestful parts for secondary players, one reason why it lingers at the edges of the standard repertory. The great Rosalind Elias gave a heart-stopping performance as blind Madelon, the mother and grandmother ready to sacrifice “the last drop of [her] old blood” for the revolution. Though her voice is a wisp of what it once was, Elias remains an artistic giant, entering draped in a black shawl and using her expressive hands and face to summon more dramatic truth in a cameo role than one encounters in many a full-length staged opera.
The rich-toned baritones Ricardo Rivera (as the snarling ideologue Mathieu) and David Pershall (as Roucher) stood out in a spirited ensemble that also included Philip Booth, Jennifer Feinstein, Renata Lamanda, Angelo Nardinocchi, Ronald Naldi, Nicola Pamio, Don Barnum, Michael O’Hearn, and Eric Keller.
The New York Choral Ensemble prepared by Italo Marchini sang beautifully, most of all in the Act I pastorale, all perfume and sighs, and the orchestra made the most of Giordani’s picturesque score, whether in the opening scene’s flurry of tingling triangles and twittering winds for the frivolous, aristocratic salon or the inky, brass-drenched chords that announce Chénier’s imminent death.
Legend has it that during an Elektra rehearsal, Richard Strauss cheerfully egged on the orchestra “Louder! Louder! I can still hear the singers!” Veronesi, alas, seems to have adopted that exhortation as his artistic credo. On Sunday they sent the wrong fellow to the guillotine.
Opera Orchestra of New York under Eve Queler will perform Verdi’s I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata starring Angela Meade and Michael Fabiano on April 8. operaorchestrany.org; 212-906-9137.