The French Revolution hasn´t fared well operatically. There are surely more, but the only operas that seem to have stayed in the repertoire are Umberto Giordano´s "Andrea Chénier" and Francis Poulenc´s "Dialogues de Carmélites". I saw in Vienna what would be a worthwhile piece to première in B.A., Gottfried Von Einem´s "Dantons Tod" ("Danton´s Death"); there´s a good recording of this score; and I have an interesting Massenet one-acter, "Thérèse". I haven´t heard Mascagni´s "Il Piccolo Marat", but the author conducted it at the Colón in 1922.
The neglect is curious, considering that it was a fascinating time. Luigi Illica, famous Puccini librettist, wrote the story in the then trendy "verismo" style, which implies strong doses of rhetorics and exaggeration. "Andrea Chénier" dates from 1896 and it was Giordano´s only lasting success. In fact, the Colón has offered it in fifteen seasons.
Many will remember the last time it was presented; the year was 1996, there were good singers (Ben Heppner, Stefka Evstatieva, Anthony Michaels-Moore) and a brilliant production: Joël, Frigerio and Squarciapino. So 19 years have elapsed, and the alternative companies haven´t taken it up until this season, when Ana D´Anna and Antonio Russo decided to start the Juventus Lyrica season with it. It was high time to meet "Chénier" again.
The only other Giordano opera seen here after WWII was "Fedora", revived in 1998 with a starry cast: Domingo, Freni, Milnes. But in the Twenties "verismo" was still much appreciated, and our city saw the premières of other Giordano operas: "La cena delle beffe", "Siberia", "Il Re" and "Madame Sans-Gêne".
Now "verismo" is much less presented all over the world, except some of Puccini´s operas ("Tosca", of course; "Il Tabarro") and that immortal couple, "Cav-Pag" (Mascagni´s "Cavalleria Rusticana" and Leoncavallo´s "I Pagliacci"), which will be seen this year at the Colón. Taste has changed, and crudeness is frowned upon. But I think that, once you accept the aesthetics, there´s a lot to enjoy in some of those now forgotten operas.
André Chénier was a distinguished poet of French Revolutionary times. He lived between 1762 and 1794. Says Richard Parker in Collier´s Encyclopedia: he was "considered a forerunner of Romanticism" in his poems, especially the "Iambics" written in prison. He deplored "the excesses of the Revolution and published courageous articles against the Jacobins and in favor of constitutional government". He was guillotined just three days before the Thermidorean reaction which could have saved him (Robespierre died three days after him!).
In Illica´s libretto Chénier attacks the aristocracy in the First Act, is hunted by a spy of the Jacobins in the Second, tried and condemned to death in the Third, and in the Fourth accepting his fate with his love, Maddalena de Coigny, in a glorification of Eros and Thanatos. The libretto is disjointed, with too many episodes and interruptions, and although Giordano´s music fits the words like a glove, one feels the need for greater continuity. Apart from the admirable orchestration, one remembers the two Chénier arias, Gérard´s "Nemico della Patria" and Maddalena´s "La mamma morta".
Two characters are of special interest: Gérard, the servant who becomes a Revolutionary, is in love with Maddalena but tries to save Chénier; and "L´Incroyable", the spy, as sly and wily as can be. The protagonists are straightforward, with no special traits. The Jacobins are gory, the Abbé, Fléville and the Countess of Coigny are symbols of the aristocracy, Bersi is the faithful helper of Maddalena, Roucher tries to help Chénier and the old Madelon offers her boy to the Army.
I was sorry that Gustavo López Manzitti was taken up by commitments at the Colón ("Werther") but Darío Sayegh (of the second cast) proved to be able to handle a high and expansive part: the voice is strong, though not always beautiful, and he uses it firmly. Sabrina Cirera did her best job to date: her vibrato under control, she gave emotion and true style to her Madddalena. Pol González went over the top several times as Gérard, but he communicated; he has a powerful voice, though uncontrolled in several moments.
I dislike the idea of singers taking several roles, especially in the case of Felipe Cudina Begovic, whose lanky figure was seen as Fléville (First Act), Roucher (Second) and Dumas (Third), confusing the audience. Less in evidence was the double presencxe of Milagros Seijó as the Countess of Coigny and Madelon, or Norberto Lara (the Abbé then becomes the Incroyable). Walter Aón also did three parts. That apart, Seijó and Lara were good. And Verónica Canaves as Bersi (her sole part) was fetching and sang nicely.
The introduction of three young female dancers in the First Act with a traditional choreography by Igor Gopkalo was agreeable, though they used no points in the late XVIIIth Century.
Kudos to Antonio Russo, splendid conductor of a very professional orchestra and an enthusiastic choir. At 80, he remains spry and vital, with the wiseness of well-acquired experience.
Ana D´Anna´s production and costumes were in the spirit of those times; it was close to her best work. Attention to detail, well-oiled entrances, true sense of a team. The problem was the unit set of Gonzalo Córdova, with too many stairs (especially for the Palace), though it did provide hiding places for the Spy.
All in all, an enjoyable "Chénier".
For Buenos Aires Herald