So while I was enjoying a cafe latte on Sunday afternoon, I was more disappointed than normal at the Sunday Arts section of our local rag, the Washington Post. Don't get me wrong, there are good people writing on the arts there. The problem last Sunday was partly the lack of space afforded to the arts and partly how that limited space was used. The four principal stories on September 5, all beginning on the front page, were:
- Season Start Dates: A Beginners' Guide, a primer on the new fall television seasons
- Allison Stewart, Squabbling Siblings of Fiery Furnaces Are Hot Stuff, a feature on "rock's other notorious sibling act, Matt and Eleanor Friedberger -- otherwise known as the Fiery Furnaces," a rock band based in New York, not Washington
- William Booth, Guffaw Guys: The Kings of Redneck Comedy, Proudly Showing Their True Colors, written from Denver
- Ann Hornaday, For 'Wattstax,' a Reprise That Restores Its Soul, about a documentary that will appear on PBS
You could argue that it's the most important premiere this weekend, a new production of Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chénier (1896), introduced at the Teatr Wielki, Poznán, in Poland, last March. The production was created by another one of those filmmakers turned opera directors (a trend noted by Greg Allen at greg.org), Mariusz Trelinski, whose WNO production of Madama Butterfly in November 2001 turned heads.
I was at the dress rehearsal of the new production last night (September 8), as a press observer, and I can tell you that it's a visually and conceptually inventive production, which I enjoyed very much. The costumes (designed by Trelinski's collaborators Magdalena Teslawska and Pawel Grabarczyk) and lighting (Felice Ross) reinforce the game of opposites created by Trelinski, between a white-powdered, grotesquely decrepit, and amoral aristocracy (see the photo from the Polish production reproduced here) and the bloodthirsty, polychromatic, disco-ball circus of the French Revolution. Before the Revolution, the members of the servant class are attired in striped uniforms reminiscent of a prison or concentration camp. Once the Revolution is in full swing, we see dancers in political convention-style tall red-white-and-blue hats, wiggling in front of banks of colored strobe lights, and clowns, and leaflets are dropped from the ceiling like ticker tape).
It's a carefully choreographed production (designed by Emil Wesołowski), with all movement rhythmically scripted, making for striking visual effects at times. The movement comes not only from the large chorus, used to remarkable effect by Giordano, but by a corps of seven solo dancers. The dancers' bodies add a beefcake/cheesecake element to the staging, quite intentionally, as the female dancers do a sort of burlesque show during the revolution and the male dancers actually strip off their livery and menace the aristocrats barechested, flamenco-style. (The sexual abandon of Trelinski's Revolution is also seen in the "revolutionary flyers" that were dropped into the audience in Act I. With the words "Liberté Egalité Fraternité," a picture of three burlesque dancers, and the telephone number 69 69 69 69, they are designed to look like ads for call girl services. Um, so they tell me.) All of this rhetorical excess seemed perfectly appropriate for a production of an opera in the heartlessly naturalistic verismo style like Andrea Chénier.
This was a dress rehearsal, which meant that some of the singers were marking their parts, so I cannot really comment that much on them. Even so, the three lead voices came across with sounds that make you sit up and listen. Italian tenor Salvatore Licitra—who will perform the role of Chénier on September 11, 14, and 17 only—is the big draw, a remarkable singer who memorably replaced Luciano Pavarotti in the Met's production of Tosca two years ago. Chénier's entrance in the first act is quickly followed by the Improvviso ("Un di all'azzurro spazio"), which was powerful, as were his other arias and the duets with Maddalena. (Uruguayan tenor Carlo Ventre, whom I did not hear, will take over for the other performances.) Soprano Paoletta Marrocu (Maddalena)appears to be set to make an excellent debut in Washington, with a rich, dark voice that works very well with this role's full-throated demands. Maddalena's most famous aria ("La mamma morta," which those not familiar with the opera may know as the aria narrated by Tom Hanks in the movie Philadelphia) is so crucial to the success of the opera, as is the final duet ("Vicino a te s'acqueta"). Both were beautifully rendered last night.
The villain of the opera, the servant Gérard turned revolutionary leader, is a role I associate most with Samuel Ramey (as I do Plácido Domingo or Jose Carreras with the title role). Mexican baritone Jorge Lagunes brings the same sort of malevolent vocal color that suits the evil genius of the role. He has a beautiful range of high notes that have that baritone power that is so striking. Some of the best scenes in this opera are the large choral tableaux, on which the Washington Opera Chorus acquitted itself admirably, especially the tribunal scenes, and the women of the chorus in particular as the shepherdesses of the pastoral entertainment in Act I. This ludicrous performance in the home of the Countess is an example of the lesser copies of the royal pastorals and ballets in France (see my other post today, The Spectacle of Versailles), given by noble patrons in their private homes. The indulgent fantasy of rural life represented by the pastoral is the perfect example of the cluelessness of the French aristocracy at the time, like Marie-Antoinette pretending to be a milkmaid in her play village on the grounds of Versailles.
Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chénier, Washington National Opera, at the Kennedy Center (September 11, 14, 17, 20, 23, and 26, and October 2, 2004). For another perspective, see Tim Smith's article (French tragedy presented for modern times, September 9) for the Baltimore Sun.