by Philip Campbell
The San Francisco Opera opened the 94th season last Friday with an especially good choice. A lavish production of Umberto Giordano's melodic verismo opera Andrea Chenier directed by David McVicar made an appropriate centerpiece for a luxurious night of celebration.
When the curtain went up on Act I to reveal the opulent Winter Garden salon of the Contessa di Coigny, one couldn't help thinking it was reflective of the finery and abundance displayed on the audience side of the proscenium. Conductor Nicola Luisotti quickly made certain that focus was switched from the red carpet outside the Opera House to the turmoil of French society at the time of the Revolution and the Reign of Terror onstage.
There are longueurs during the four acts (one intermission), and a faster tempo might have helped speed or mask occasional sags in the composer's and librettist Luigi Illica's theatrical impetus, but Luisotti caressed and shaped every page to reveal influences on Giordano's score and the delicious synthesis he achieved. When the music swings French we are treated to the perfumed loveliness of Massenet; when it is most Italian we feel the muscular punch of Mascagni, and of course every note is infused with the heart-melting emotion of Puccini.
Giordano could never again equal the success of his one big hit, but his tale of idealism and death-defying love has survived, usually waiting for the right mixture of vocal casting to fill the trio of leading roles. The SFO's co-production with Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Beijing has come up with three impressive stars. All are making their welcome San Francisco debuts.
South Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee in the title role and Italian soprano Anna Pirozzi as his courageous and compassionate love Maddalena di Coigny may not share the same level of subtlety revealed by Georgian (Tbilisi) baritone George Gagnidze as jealous zealot Carlo Gerard, but Illica gave his character more shading in the first place.
What counts most is the singing, and Lee's baritonal tenor makes his performance as passionate and sympathetic as required. His handsome ramrod-straight stage presence suits the hero's deep commitment. His voice doesn't open at the top with much bloom, but he still gets there with complete assurance.
Anna Pirozzi reportedly has a devoted fan base in Italy, and it appears well-justified. There was an immediate response to her singing on opening night, and she grew in power and lyricism as the opera went on. Her famous aria "La mamma morta" brought cheers, and her low-keyed acting helped integrate it into the scene better than usual. It remains a show-stopping moment, but it made more dramatic sense.
Lee is a darker-voiced tenor, and George Gagnidze is a darker-voiced baritone. His performance was memorably powerful as the complicated revolutionary who finally cannot betray his friend or the woman they both love. He brought sympathetic intensity to his big moments.
Secondary roles were also well-cast. American mezzo-soprano J'Nai Bridges made her SFO and role debuts as the heroine's companion Bersi with a pleasing sound that matches her lovely stage presence.
American baritone David Pershall also made his SFO debut as Roucher, and managed to stand out despite the lack of dramatic substance in his role.
As the old Contessa di Coigny, woefully ignorant of the suffering around her, SFO favorite Catherine Cook won another huge audience response at the final curtain.
Front-and-center singing makes perfect sense in an opera that deliberately stops in its tracks to make important declarations or to allow impassioned duets. For the rest of the show, follow spots pick out the principals in crowd scenes.
For those who find McVicar's traditional approach old-fashioned, I defend his refreshing boldness in an age that demands ponderously overthought opera productions. They usually inspire audience outrage and critical trashing anyway.
Sumptuous sets by Robert Jones and gorgeous costumes by Jenny Tiramani (both making their SFO debuts) are beautifully visible, thanks to lighting designer Adam Silverman. Most importantly, Maestro Luisotti is in the pit to punch up the action and get the verismo blood pumping.
The production is physically huge, necessitating mood-breaking pauses between acts, but McVicar's intelligent details and dramatic instincts quickly return our attention. He finds the heart of an opera with a showman's flair for the theatrical. By the final blackout, after the lovers have shared one of the biggest duets in the repertoire to walk upstage towards their tragic fate, only a heart of stone could be unmoved. It may be old-fashioned, but who really wants it to go out of style?
Andrea Chenier continues in repertory through Fri., Sept. 30. sfopera.com.