Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, once favored by both singers and the audience, is now rather a rarity. I, myself, had never seen it staged before today. Although its rightly famous arias are foolprof with the public, the truth is that the score has more than a hint of a patchwork, many pages of which giving the impression of being stop gaps between the big-tune moments. Also, the plot lacks organicity and its very historically precise setting giving very little opportunity for a director to try to make something out of it. Nonetheless, it can be a pleasant evening in the opera – the historical aspects are interesting, the big arias are really something to write home about and the leading roles are raw material for singers with musical and dramatic imagination. If you left the theatre this evening feeling shortchanged, you cannot blame it on San Francisco Opera: every effort has been made to guarantee that Giordano received premium treatment. Even if – some might say – he probably did not make his best efforts to deserve it…
In an age in which the likes of Renata Tebaldi or Mario del Monaco are not easy to found, this run of performances offered – once idealness is not really possible – interesting voices that still drawed some interest when things did not really work as expected. Anna Pirozzi’s soprano, for instance, is something hard to resist – it is natural in tone, warm in color, homogeneous through its registers and completely ductile in floating mezza voce. She also has crystal-clear diction and has an almost Cerquetti-ian spontaneity in her phrasing that makes you think she was born singing this music. In other words, in three minutes, I’ve decided that I liked her full stop. Then I realized that shifting from lirico to lirico spinto required some preparation and that then her tone, even if still firm and hearable, acquired some tension and lost some bloom. And then there is La mamma morta. She did sing it with purity of tone, clarity of enunciation and flowing legato – but the thrill, that moment of spiritual liberation when she realizes that it was love the reason for living… Then one could feel that the singer was busy with her notes. There was more than a moment when I imagined the pleasure of listening that voice in Dove sono i bei momenti (yes, from Le Nozze di Figaro) and I could not help worrying about the Abigailles and Aidas in her repertoire. But again: even at that moment, I still like her.
Yonghoon Lee is an even more intriguing voice. His muscular, dark-toned and curiously taut but not edgy tenor – not Italianate in sound – made me think of some other voice, but it took me 20 minutes to produce the name of James King. But then the idea seemed absurd – James King’s high notes were different (and the repertoire too) – and yet there was this splash of James King in it, even in the way he released the sound with something like a gulp. Mr. Lee’s high notes, however, are almost unique in its absence of brightness – the sound lacks projection and, without the usual high overtones in a tenor high register, are produced with extreme physical effort. As he is not short in stamina, the method worked almost to the end of the opera. In the last act, he was visibly tired: notes were abruptly ended for many extra breath pauses. Before that, he seemed keen on legato (sometimes at the expense of textual clarity) and of shading without ever coming close to falsetto. He is an extremely serious man – and I cannot see him, with that voice and attitude, in lighter roles. On the other hand, the absence of squillo in his high notes would make it difficult to tackle really heroic roles. Also, his stand-and-deliver stage attitude is not to everybody’s taste. For Andrea Chénier, however, all that – fervor included – worked out somehow.
George Gagnidze is no new name for me, and yet he sounded invested with a dramatic commitment this evening new to me. From his first entrance, he sang passionately and acted with unusual awareness to the theatrical action, culminating in an intense Nemico della patria?. He too could have done with a little bit more volume, but could be heard without problem.
The issue of volume – a problem for every singer in the cast – has special relevance since Maestro Nicola Luisotti did not spare his orchestra. In a score with many uninspired moment, he took the right decision of filling the blanks with sheer sound, for positive effects. Whenever he reined in his musicians – invariably to help out his singers in their arias and duets – one missed a bit the orchestral opulence a more dramatic-voiced cast could have allowed him to employ more often.
Confronted with the practical problems of staging a historical drama, director David McVicar chose a highly decorative approach: costumes and sets were exquisite and historically informed and sometimes one had the impression of watching a Merchant Ivory film. One can only imagine that the absence of stage animals in the cast may have been challenging, but an extra effort (especially regarding the leading tenor) would have paid off.