Review: ‘Andrea Chénier’ at SF Opera (****1/2)

by Charles Kruger

Younghoon Lee in the title role of Umberto Giordano's "Andrea Chénier."
Younghoon Lee in the title role of Umberto Giordano’s “Andrea Chénier.”
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

Responding to the great romantic masterpieces of the likes of Verdi and Wagner, opera composers, like their literary contemporaries, turned from romance to realism, creating the movement called “opera verismo” — true-to-life opera stories, with music that emphasized character and realism.

By modern standards, the masterpieces of “opera verismo” (think of Carmen or Madama Butterfly) seem excessively romantic and bombastic.

And bombast is certainly a large part of “Andrea Chénier.” But, in this case, that’s not a bad thing. What could be more bombastic than the French revolution, after all? Whatever its flaws, it is easy to give oneself up to this historical melodrama, with its exciting courtroom scenes, depictions of protesting citizens, dramatic confrontations, reversals of plot and character, and fabulous sets including depictions of wealthy aristocratic salons, street scenes, revolutionary courtrooms, and a prison cell.

The story is not that complicated: Andrea Chénier is a revolutionary poet who runs afoul of the revolutionary courts. Carlo Gerard is a servant turned revolutionary who is responsible for Chénier’s condemnation, partly because Carlo is jealous over a woman. In the end, Carlo has a change of heart, but he cannot save the poet. Their lady love, in an act of noble sacrifice, persuades the jailers to let her go with the poet to the guillotine, exchanging her life for that of an innocent young mother.

Giordano’s score has often been criticized for its lack of subtlety and a tendency to be overblown. But performed by great singers, these flaws become virtues — there’s a lot to be said for bombast when well-sung and well-acted.

And the cast of SF Opera’s production is spectacularly good, featuring three great artists making their San Francisco debuts.

Let us begin with Korean tenor Younghoon Lee in the title role. It is easy to get why this young man is an international star, widely recognized as a leading tenor of his generation. Handsome, graceful and a fine actor, he has musicianship, lyricism, and a thrilling vocal timbre to match with the greatest of tenors. At the performance I attended, many audience members (myself included) shouted “bravo” till our voices were hoarse.

George Gadnideze as Carlo Gérard is truly memorable: he creates a villain as easy to loathe as Scarpio, then teaches us to love him after all. It is a well-written part, with an unusually interesting character arc, and, in his debut performance of the role, Gadnidze makes the most of it.  His acting and singing are of the highest order.

The third major character is Carlo’s and Andréa’s shared love interest, Maddalena di Coigny, sung by coloratura Anna Pirozzi. Her acting is convincing, and she is magnificent singing the famous “La mama morta.” Brava!

The rest of the company rises to the occasion throughout, and there is particularly fine work from Joel Sorenson and SF Opera’s beloved Catherine Cook in smaller roles.

“Andrea Chénier” is an accessible, wonderfully performed and staged production that is easy to enjoy.

“Andrea Chénier” has upcoming performances at SF Opera on September 22, 25th (matinee) and 30th. For further information, click here.

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Rating: ****1/2
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.

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“Andrea Chenier” by Umberto Giordano. Libretto by Luigi Illica. Condcutor: Nicola Luisotti. Director: David McVicar. Set Designer: Robert Jones. Costume Designer: Jeny Tiramani. Lighting Designer: Adam Silverman. Associate Lighting Designer: Gary Marder Chorus Director: Ian Roertson. Original Choreographer: Andrew George. Revival Choreographer: Colin Seery. Dance MAster: Lawrence Pech. Fight Director: David Maier.

Cast:

Carlo Gerard: George Gagnidze. Major-Domo: Anders Frolich. An Old Gardener (Gerard’s father). An Old Gardener (Gerard’s father): Charlie Lichtman. Maddalena di Coigny: Anna Pirozzi. Bersi: J’Nai Bridges. Contessa di Coigny: Catherine Cook. Pietro Fleville: Edward Nelson. Fiando Fiorinelli: Matthew Erickson. Andrea Chenier: Younghoon Lee. The Abbe: Alex Boyer. Shepherdess: Laura Alexich. Shepherd: Michael Levine. Mathieu: Robert Pomakov. Orazio Coclite: Travis Rowland. The Incredible (An Incroyable): Joel Sorenson. Roucher: David Pershall. Madelon: Jill Grove. Madelon’s Grandson: Grahim Isom. Fouquier-Tinville: Matthew Stump. Dumas: Brad Walker. Gravier de Vergennes: Charlie Lichtman. Laval-Montmorency: Susan Anderson-Norby. Idia Legray: Tatiana Bookbinder. Schmidt: Anthony Reed.

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