For his time Umberto Giordano definitely knew how to make a successful business proposition for an operatic production. He knew that a paying public had to come away feeling that they had got their money’s worth. After all, the nineteenth century marked the transition of opera from a diversion for the elites to a public entertainment. This meant serving the public with star turns that would bring an entire audience to its feet shouting “Bravo!” (if not “Encore!”); and, with the rise of the verismo style, which could resonate with those paying customers, Giordano developed the necessary skills to ply his audience with the same craft that Franz Liszt could bring to playing the piano.
Last night in the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco Opera gave the second of six performances of Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, named after the French poet who developed his technique by serving the French aristocracy, witnessed the French Revolution, and was ultimately a victim of the Reign of Terror. Giordano’s librettist, Luigi Illica, turned the historical record into what was basically an “eternal triangle” plot, with both Chénier and Carlo Gérard (a footman at the beginning of the opera and a powerful member of the Revolutionary Tribune at the end) drawn to Maddalena di Coigny, an aristocrat whose countess mother was an early victim of the Terror. The nature of that triangle can easily lead one to wonder if either Giordano or Illica knew about Victorien Sardou’s play La Tosca, which was first performed in 1887. (Andrea Chénier was first performed in 1896, and Illica would later be one of the librettists for Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, given its premiere in 1900.)
However, Giordano’s characters are portrayed with more humanity than Sardou’s, perhaps in the interest of appealing to the audience, rather than shocking it. Ultimately, they are the least stereotyped characters of the opera. Giordano certainly knew how to write music that would endow each of these characters with a personality, and last night Music Director Nicola Luisotti’s sensitivity to Giordano’s techniques conveyed those personality traits so effectively that those reflex reactions of public approval all seemed to be grounded in scrupulously-crafted musical technique.
It is worth noting at this point that soprano Anna Pirozzi, singing the role of Maddalena, was coping with illness. General Director Matthew Shilvock explained this to the audience as the reason for a fifteen-minute delay before the performance began. Pirozzi soldiered on giving little indication of any physical difficulties. Hopefully, she will be back in shape by Saturday, because she definitely knew how to escalate her character above the level of stereotype. However, the real master of nuanced complexity of character was baritone George Gagnidze with his portrayal of Gérard. As a disgruntled footman he seethed with resentment, but as witness to the Terror he had to deal with how the Revolution had spun out of control. Tenor Yonghoon Lee’s Chénier, on the other hand, came across as a bit of a poseur both before and after the Revolution. It was only in “Come un bel di di maggio” (like a beautiful day in May), presented as the last poem Chénier wrote prior to his execution, that Lee established his sensitivity to Chénier’s character, thus endowing the final moments in which Chénier and Maddalena face the guillotine together with the most substantive drama of the evening.
The one major question mark in last night’s performance was the contribution of Director David McVicar. The French Revolution is a complex subject. Historians from Edmund Burke to Simon Schama could only deal with it through massive tomes. If the depth of the three major characters as presented by the three leading soloists was the result of McVicar’s insights, then he definitely deserves credit. However, just about everything else, particularly the group scenes, was a jumble of worn-out stereotypes. This was disappointing because Illica provided the libretto with an abundance of secondary roles, all of which were given solid vocal performances; but McVicar’s direction never did very much to establish those roles as characters contributing to the overall narrative. Instead, he chose to dwell on magnitude, which led to several instances of stunning visual impact that never quite aligned with the narrative journey of the libretto.