It is difficult to imagine any narrative of the French Revolution that would be void of irony. Indeed, I have to admire Simon Schama’s restraint. In his 900-page Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, he seems to have resisted the urge to paraphrase Winston Churchill and declare that the whole story of the French Revolution comes down to one damned irony after another. It is therefore no surprise that irony is rife throughout the libretto that Luigi Illica prepared for Umberto Giordano’s opera Andrea Chénier. Watching the San Francisco Opera (SFO) production of this opera for the second time this afternoon, I could not help but marvel at the barrage of ironies that unfold over the course of the opera’s four acts. Indeed, Illica even went so far as to have Carlo Gérard (the servant who rises to political power after the Revolution) quote the journalist (and Royalist sympathizer) Jacques Mallet du Pan with the phrase that, in the spirit of Saturn, “the Revolution devours its children.”
This afternoon, however, I had the advantage of a seat that afforded an excellent view of both the SFO Orchestra and its conductor, Music Director Nicola Luisotti. I tend to be consistently impressed with the effectiveness of the chemistry that Luisotti establishes with the vocalists up on the stage. It is one thing to make sure that the musicians capture all of the rhetorical turns that support the narrative, even when the narrative is at its most preposterous (which it is not in this particular opera). Aligning the expressiveness of the musicians with that of the vocalists is quite another matter, particular when those vocalists also have to be taking marching orders from the stage director.
However, in this particular opera, one would be justified in asking whether or not Giordano appreciated just how much irony was in Illica’s text; and, if he did, what did he do about it? After this afternoon’s performance, I concluded that, for the most part, Giordano was busy frying other fish, meaning that he was willing to cede almost all conveyance of irony solely to the words. Nevertheless, there is at least one moment in which Giordano seems to have reinforced the irony established by the text. It concerns the spy known only as “The Incredible,” the sort of character that would provide the perfect model for a librettist committed to working on an opera about Joseph Stalin in which Lavrentiy Beria (Chief of the NKVD) would be one of the characters. There is an episode in which The Incredible (sung by tenor Joel Sorensen) explains to Gérard (baritone George Gagnidze) that Chénier (tenor Yonghoon Lee) can be used as “bait” to attract Maddalena di Coigny (soprano Anna Pirozzi), whom Gérard has loved since he was a servant in her mother’s château. This is the closest The Incredible comes to an extended aria; and it is a delicate little ditty (absent of all sinister intent) that bears a “family resemblance” to the gavotte danced at that château during the first act (which is interrupted by a chorus of starving peasants). In other words The Incredible’s aria has strong connotations of what-goes-around-comes-around; and capturing those connotations is music suggests that Giordano’s one attempt at irony succeeded admirably. Sadly, Stage Director David McVicar decided that the memory of the gavotte needed to be reinforced by having The Incredible prance around while singing. Fortunately, the music retained its sense of irony in spite of any visual interference!