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S.F. Opera's Chénier Strong, Except Where It Counts

September 12, 2016

San Francisco Opera

There is only one reason to open a great opera house’s season with Umberto Giordano’s gutsy tale of defiant poet and unlikely love vs. revolutionary terror: You’ve got lead singers with sufficient chops and emotional conviction to pull it off. Otherwise, Andrea Chénier’s healthy parcel of powerhouse arias and duets can easily become lost amid a less than consistently inspired score.

Thus stumbled San Francisco Opera’s disappointing September 9 opening night in the War Memorial Opera House. Certainly Robert Jones’ sets and Jenny Tiramani’s costumes for David McVicar’s production could not be faulted for the failure. In this coproduction with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (where it debuted in January 2015) and Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts, the opulent opening set in the Coigny Château elicited applause from attendees as elaborately dressed as the aristocracy onstage.

Nor was it anyone’s fault that the final act courtyard of the Prison Saint-Lazare bore an ironic resemblance to the architecture of San Francisco’s War Memorial pair. The production consistently supported the story, and enabled singers and audience alike to focus without undue distraction.

So did, for the most part, Nicola Luisotti’s conducting. While in the first two acts, our maestro seemed so intent on bringing out the score’s colors and poetry that he dueled with his singers for attention, he settled down to a more supportive role after intermission. Luisotti made his point well – Giordano’s score has a lot going for it, and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra has the skill and musicality to let it shine. But when your orchestra sounds more poetic than your poet lead, you’ve got a major problem.

Which leads us to what this opera is all about, the singing. San Francisco has usually seen this opera with great and near-great singers. On opening night of 2016, however, only one lead, debuting Georgian baritone George Gagnidze (Gérard), made the grade. Twenty years after his debut, Gagnidze mated deep conviction and handsome, strong tone with an economy of gesture and convincing facial expression. As Scarpia-like as he may have been in his lecherous advances on Maddalena, he ultimately succeeded in evoking sympathy for taming his lust in the name of loyalty and honor. But as unified as his portrayal was – his “Nemico della patria” was the best showpiece of the evening – it was not wrenching enough to put the production over the top.

Debuting Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee (Chénier) initially impressed with his baritonal timbre, ringing high tones, and unstinting strength. But his quasi-portrayal of Chénier quickly grew wearisome.

Despite a few soft passages, there was absolutely nothing in Lee’s voice or stock projection to draw one in. Quite the opposite. Not once did he seem to make eye contact with either his audience or his beloved Maddalena (debuting Italian soprano Anna Pirozzi). Chénier may be adamant in his loyalty to humanity and rejection of excess, but that does not call for a single unchanging, grim expression and one-tone-fits-all performance. Nor did Lee’s tangible preparation for his high notes, which lacked all sense of spontaneity and emotional urgency, help matters.

Equally dismaying was his railroad-semaphore-signal method of acting. Left fist clutched to heart, right hand fully open with arm extended 30 degrees for the first phrase – left arm extended and right arm raised for the next – right arm reaching forward and left arm reaching sideways for the third – it was like watching R2D2 in repeat mode. As derisive as the expression “park and bark” may be, it would have been preferable to a motoric, punched out performance that seemed the antithesis of Chénier’s poetry.

For the first three acts, Pirozzi did little to justify her bio’s claim as “one of the leading sopranos of the Italian dramatic repertory.” She seemed like a very nice, even fragile woman, but her tone was neither notably beautiful nor dramatically compelling. Maddalena’s great aria, “La mamma morta,” lacked radiance and abandon. Instead, it devolved into plodding. The climactic high note, although hinting at the steel that was to come in final “guillotine” duet, seemed achieved with considerable effort. To Luisotti’s credit, he who had formerly dared his singers to project over his orchestra shifted course, doing everything he could to support a soprano who was working very, very hard.

After Chenier’s “Come un bel dì di Maggio” (Like a beautiful May day) – one of the two great tenor arias in the opera – rightfully elicited only scattered applause, Maddalena made the ultimate, compassionate sacrifice that paved the way for their arm in arm procession to the guillotine. As Lee seemed to prepare himself before each phrase, Pirozzi finally opened up to almost drown him out in their joint, steely top B. As a physical act, it was certainly impressive. But moving art it was not.

It was the secondary characters who shone most. Mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook was simply delicious as Contessa di Coigny, Canadian bass Robert Pomakov exceedingly strong as Mathieu, and mezzo-soprano Jill Grove a major knockout as Madelon. Although Cook was never onstage at the same time as Joel Sorensen’s remarkable L’Incroyable, she figuratively met her match in a portrayal so well sung and unctuous as to tempt you to procure a spy as your pet dog. When Sorensen danced across the stage to his most evil lines, it was hard not to imagine him as the wicked witch in Hansel and Gretel. Mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, as Bersi, also sang exceedingly well.

At the very least, Lee and Pirozzi need to take to heart that old showbiz motto, “Never let them see you sweat.” One can only hope that they were suffering from bad cases of opening night jitters, and that subsequent evenings find them in far better form.

Jason Victor Serinus is a music critic, professional whistler, and lecturer on classical vocal recordings. His credits includes Seattle Times, Listen, Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, Classical Voice North America, Carnegie Hall Playbill, Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, Stanford Live, Bay Area Reporter, San Francisco Examiner, AudioStream, and California Magazine.

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