Monday, January 7, 2013

Andrea Chenier: e forse per questo solo v'amo

Not only do I like Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chenier, but I will defend it as a barely-guilty pleasure. The libretto by Luigi Illica boasts fairly sophisticated and quite funny French Revolution jokes (as well as several historical howlers. The sometimes too-rich melodies and their instrumentation may feel perhaps a little too predictable, a little too emotionally manipulative... but what a pleasure it can be to be emotionally manipulated! The work premiered in 1896, just after the centenary of the French Revolution, after a century profoundly marked by its shadow, and issues of gender and class are vividly, cruelly highlighted in the drama. The whole thing is more subtle than The Scarlet Pimpernel, and can be just as much fun, as a quasi-historical and hyper-romantic romp (I'd compare it to Scaramouche, a less famous novel which I loved even more than the Pimpernel when I was fourteen. But I digress.) Given its due, I believe that the score serves not only to move the melodramatic plot along with thrilling speed, but to make vivid the political and emotional tensions which are intertwined at its heart. I felt, however, that Sunday's performance by the Opera Orchestra of New York lacked romantic and revolutionary fire. Debuting the title role under the handicap of a cold, Roberto Alagna lacked much of his usual elan, and the conducting lacked finesse. Rosalind Elias' Madelon was a highlight, and George Petean was a great discovery as the fascinating Carlo Gerard, but the evening as a whole buckled (to borrow a phrase) more often than it swashed.

Some classical moderation would have aided the approach of Alberto Veronesi; despite the plot's warnings against the perils of extremism, the orchestra tended to an excess of volume and an insufficiency of precision.
I must in justice observe that I suspect the available rehearsal time was minimal. Furthermore, as in the Beatrice di Tenda I saw in December, curious choices were made concerning entrances and exits, which resulted in several characters being offstage when the libretto calls for them to be on, and onstage before they were supposed to be. Quel désordre!  The men and women of the chorus got to do a lot of gleefully bloodthirsty muttering, in which duty they acquitted themselves respectably. In the small character roles in which the opera abounds, there were several good contributions. Ricardo Rivera sneered convincingly and sang strongly as Matthieu, who gets to sing revolutionary songs and polish the bust of Marat. David Pershall was a solid presence as Roucher. Tenor Ronald Naldi's performance as the Abbé was incisive, with just the right degree of pomposity. As Bersi, Renata Lamanda had occasionally harsh sound, but sang with expressive engagement. Whereas several of the elements of the performance seemed to make little of much, veteran Rosalind Elias made much of comparatively little in the brief role of Madelon. Elias' presence was impressive, and her characterization of the frail and fiercely proud woman who brings her grandson to enlist as a soldier (melodrama!) was vivid, making an easily-pathetic cameo genuinely touching.

Of the three principals, the baritone, Gerard, who begins the evening as a lackey and becomes first a prophet and then a functionary of the revolution, is perhaps the most excitingly three-dimensional. Certainly George Petean gave an excitingly three-dimensional performance. Petean has a baritone rich and mellifluous, as well as sizeable, and he gave a vigorous performance, convincingly animated by moral indignation in his Act I aria, and moving in the equally bitter self-criticism of "Nemico della patria." Kristin Lewis is a dramatic soprano with an impressive vocal instrument, and an impressive list of credentials to her name, but her debut in the role of Maddalena failed, I suspect, to show her at her best. She was beset by problems with intonation, and even when singing securely, she didn't seem fully comfortable with the emotional outpourings which the role demands. Also, possibly due chiefly to their preoccupations with their respective roles, there was a distinct lack of chemistry between Lewis and Roberto Alagna as the ardent poet. I didn't feel that the rocky start of "Un di all'azzurro spazio" was an insurmountable distraction (although it may have put Alagna off his stride; he had entered with a pleasingly apt swagger.) Still, it was a performance which left me wanting more; Alagna can be so much more than adequate. For the most part, he sounded vocally secure, and though a few sounds did not sound easy or beautiful, most of them did. Alagna was, not infrequently, beautifully expressive in vocal terms, acquitting himself well in the trial scene, and making me teary during "Come un bel dì di maggio." Still, I was left wistfully wishing for the over-the-top tenor I have known and loved... and hoping for a more visceral and spontaneous iteration of the poet from him in the not-too-distant future.

Curtain calls:

Matthieu (Rivera) and Fleville (Nardinocchi)
L'abbe (Naldi), L'incredible (Pamio), Roucher (Pamio)

Rosalind Elias, responding to adulation
Grande dame
Bersi (Lamanda)
Petean (Gerard), looking quite genial after strain of being a Not Really Evil Baritone
Kristin Lewis (Maddalena)
Alagna (the unfocused camera is an accident, not a metaphor)

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