Patricia Racette as Maddalena and Željko Lučić as Gérard in Giordano's "Andrea Cheniér."
(Photo : Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)
Umberto Giordano's "Andrea Chenier" is a major part of the operatic canon, but has rarely been performed regularly at the Metropolitan Opera. The last time Met audiences got a chance to see the verismo masterpiece was in 2007 when Canadian tenor Ben Heppner took on the title role. For the revival on Monday, March 24, Argentinean tenor Marcelo Alvarez took on the work's eponymous character with Patricia Racette and Zeljko Lucic filling out the cast.
The production Nicolas Noel debuted back in 1996 and despite being inherently traditional in its trappings, remains modern in its intelligent use of space. "Chenier" does not really lend itself to a modern update or transposition of the action to a different locale of time period. The French Revolution is not simply mentioned in a few passing statements, but dominates the action of the work from the start to the finish. The opera opens with a party of the gentry that is eventually interrupted by the rebelling mob. By the time the curtain opens on the second act, the Reign of Terror is already well underway. The third act showcases the horrific time period in French history in all of its misery and violence while the final scene simply showcases the results of the previous scene. The first act is surprisingly bare for its setting. There is a couch and harp in the center of the stage and behind those items is a massive imposing golden mirror that is bent, distorted, and dirty; it is undoubtedly a wondrous symbol for the corrupt and blind upper class in French society that is not only blinded by its ambition for power, but also cannot foresee the tragedy that is about to befall it. The second act is set in a plaza with grey columns and a statue of Robespierre dominating the setting; the background is blue and littered throughout are the French flags and banners of the revolution's "Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite" slogan. The grey columns coupled with the light blue (a recurring color combination throughout the final three acts) gives the atmosphere a coldness and rigidity that expresses the harsh world of the French revolution.
The most powerfully staged scene of the entire production is in the third act when Chenier must go on trial for being a traitor. On stage left are the judges on tables and on a platform that rises above everyone onstage. On upstage right is a series of risers for the common folk to witness the trial. The downstage area is reserved for the main action, but also for the soldiers to form rigid line formations around the prisoner. The contrasts of power in this scene are rather potent; the mob seemingly looks to be on the same level as the judges but is still kept apart from them. Chenier, standing in the middle of it all looks isolated and overwhelmed; this choice also gives the tenor ample opportunity and space to establish himself throughout his famed monologue "Si, Fui Soldato." The final act features a cell with debris in the center of the stage and an opening behind it. The greatest success of this production is in creating a uniform look and feel that showcases the setting without being overly imposing. The result is that the actors are given greater freedom to move about stage and exert themselves.
Marcelo Alvarez took on the role for the first time in his Met career and was a mixed bag. The tenor boasts a bright lyric sound in his middle range, but seemingly has trouble maintaining the brilliance when the vocal line calls for him to open up in the passaggio and upper notes. During the opening aria "Un di all'azzurro spazio," the tenor's voice constantly lost its bright luster at the peaks of phrases and his legato lines were rather choppy and lacking in fluidity. During the solo's most passionate high notes, he tended to push the sound out with a vicious accent; this has undoubtedly become a trademark of his singing and permeated the entire performance. One such example was the climactic "Amor, divino dono" where Alvarez sang the opening "Amor" with the full potency of his voice and then pushed the end of it to continue the phrase; the result was a jarring effect that got rid of the otherwise solid delivery at the start of the note. The aria often calls for wild declamation at certain moments, particularly in the final lines of the aria "Del mondo anima e vita e l'amo," in which Chenier essentially scolds Maddalena for his insults of his love. Alvarez prescribed to this tradition, but the wild shouts on "del and "anima" a bit erratic compared to the rest of his vocal line. There were some moments to relish to be sure. His pianissimo during the lines "O Giovinetta bella, d'un poeta non disprezzate il detto" was gentle and full of pain.
The second aria "Credo a una possanza arcana" was a marked improvement, but Alvarez's phrasing continued to prove frustrating. His ascent's to the vocal peaks were always preceded by a huge break before a top note and a subsequent accent on that high note; this created not only predictable, but uneven phrasing. One such moment was his declamation of "A te una spade, si soldato," where the final "soldato" had a forced swell at the end that sounded uncomfortable. His better moments came in the second half of the aria, particularly in the lighter fare. The phrase "E questo mio destino si chiama amore," melted beautifully in its final diminuendo and the ensuing passage "Io non ho amato ancor!" was elegant and longing in its execution. The transition from "fa mia" to "bella" which marks a shift from a tender line to a more intense and passionate one was rather abrupt, Alvarez's crescendo sounding forced and rather quick in the buildup. The climactic "Credi all'amor Chenier" was loud, but the sound was a bit strained.
Things got a lot better for the tenor during the famous "Si, Fui Soldato," undoubtedly his finest moment of the evening. The declamatory phrases of the monologue suited him beautifully and the vocal line's middle tessitura also restricted Alvarez from the aforementioned belting in his upper range. Instead, the voice projected with a directness and intensity that had not been heard up this moment; this was an Alvarez that had not appeared all night. The tenor was an imposing presence in this aria, his Chenier showing strength, but yet betraying some anguish and fear at the same time.
The final aria "Come un bel di di Maggio" was also a solid display from the tenor, his singing here finding finesse in its restraint. This gentler aria allowed Alvarez to capitalize on the brilliance of his middle range, the phrasing also showcasing a fluidity that was sorely lacking throughout many other vocal moments. The apex of the aria, with its pained outburst was also far more riveting in its execution; the climactic high note on "il gelido spiro" was thrilling to behold.
The two duets with Patricia Racette were not major successes for the tenor; his voice seemed to be belting its way through the climactic moments, almost as if he were struggling to keep up with his partner and the orchestra at the same time.
Patricia Racette gave a commanding performance as Maddalena. Throughout Act 1, it was clear that this was an immature girl through Racette's movements and the levity in her voice. However, upon her first appearance in Act 2 the character was now a tortured woman attempting to find her strength. Racette's singing here, while filled with a wide vibrato that sometimes skewed the pitch, was nuanced and controlled. Her "La Mamma Morta" in Act 3 was easily one of the highlights of the night as Racette's vocal power transmitted the deep pain and suffering. The opening lines in the soprano's lower register were delivered with a pained emphasis. The emphatic breathing expressed the sobbing that would dominate the remainder of the aria. As she sang "E Bersi, buona e pura," her voice rose in a celestial crescendo. The "Fu in quell dolore che a me venne l'amor" was a hushed piano that eventually developed into a powerful crescendo on "Voce piena d'armonia e dice." The fervent section that followed showcased Racette in all her vocal glory; the sound soared over the orchestra in the riveting musical peaks. This declamation of love started off with tremendous adoration, but the emotion quickly shifted to the weeping of the aria's opening; the tempo growing as the aria developed, highlighting the desperation of the Maddalena. The climactic high note on "Ah! Io son l'amore," while wavering in its pitch, came off as a violent cry full of despair and tragedy. Throughout this scene her Maddalena looked like a victim, but not one ready to be manipulated. She fought off physical aggression from Gerard and even attempted to run after Chenier as he was taken away. In the final act, Racette's character arc had come to its heroic conclusion; the weakness of the previous act had given way to a more assertive and confident woman ready to die for her man. Her voice soared throughout the final duet, but she still managed to maintain a refinement in her phrasing.
The big highlight of the night was undoubtedly baritone Zeljko Lucic as Gerard. Out of the three main personages in the work, Gerard is undoubtedly the most complex. He is a servant who becomes a part of the revolution and eventually becomes increasingly powerful. However, he dreams of a world built on the ideals of fraternity, equality and liberty. He does his best to uphold these values even if they go against his own emotions and desires. His famous "Nemico della patria" brings this internal conflict to the fore. Lucic dominated this passage. His voice starting the opera with a sternness that exhibited his implacability. However, there was an increasing anger in the delivery that eventually turned into pain on the words "Sovvertitor di cuori e di costumi!" The ensuing "Un di m'era gioia passer" was filled with melancholy, portraying the fallen dreams of Gerard. His "uccido e tremo" went from a impassioned cry on "uccido" to a diminuendo that seemed to emulate a weep on the word "tremo." Instead, Lucic delivered the latter word with scorn and repressed fury. The ensuing phrases revealed a deep hurt; as the music built toward its apotheosis, Lucic's polished voice ascended to greater heights. He ultimately managed to give Gerard tragic heroism. This was undoubtedly his finest moment, but Lucic's performance was filled with a plethora of gems, including his arching phrases in the second Act as he described Maddalena to the Incredible.
The remainder of the cast was spot on. Tony Stevenson was conniving as the Incredible, his voice filled with biting sarcasm during his "Donnina innamorata" in Act 3. His arrival in Act 2 was ominous; his physical rigidity and his stern declamation of "Osservala" and "Osservalo." Jennifer Johnson Cano stood out as the playful Bersi; her joyous "Temer? Perche? Perche temer dovro" added a much-needed levity to an otherwise tragic evening. Olesya Petrova, making her debut as the Madelon, added a great deal of that tragedy during her memorable "Son la vecchia Madelon, her voice dignified singing suggesting an internal conflict between expressing her pain and suffering and attempting to understand her situation of losing her last grandson for good. Dwayne Croft was a sturdy Roucher while Robert Pomakov was menacing in the role of Robert; his utterance of "Liberta e Patate" during his lengthy monologue at the start of Act 3 filled with a violently scornful quality.
Gianandrea Noseda managed to draw some wondrous colors from the orchestra; everything came off with a distinct polish that made the score really vibrate beautifully. This was particularly noticeable during the gavotte at the end of act one with its lush string sound that somehow had a sardonic bite to it. The conductor also managed to draw some lush lyricism from the strings in Act 2 as Gerard described Maddalena to the Incredible. Noseda knew exactly how to draw explosive sounds from the orchestra in the work's numerous climaxes, but he did seem a bit overzealous throughout and managed to cover his singers at more than a few instances. As noted above, Alvarez seemed to be pushing endlessly throughout the final duet and it is hard to ignore that the orchestra was constantly roaring over the singers to cathartic, but also overburdening effect.
"Andrea Chenier" is a passionate masterwork that moves at an unrelenting pace. The Met's current production remains timely despite its age and the singers, for the most part, gave terrific performances. These performances have surely made a case for the opera's more persistent revival at the famed house.