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Operatic Revolution

Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
09/17/2004 -  & September 26, October 2, 2004
Umberto Giordano: Andrea Chénier
Salvatore Licitra (Andrea Chenier), Jorge Lagunes (Carlo Gerard), Paoletta Marrocu (Maddalena)
Washington National Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Eugene Kohn (Conductor)
Mariusz Trelinski (Director), Boris Kudlicka (Set Design), Magdalena Teslawska and Pawel Grabarczyk (Costume and Makeup Design)

The Washington National Opera opened its 49th season with its first-ever production of Andrea Chénier. Set against the historical backdrop of the French Revolution, Chénier is a powerful, romantic saga of the spirit of revolution, of liberty, equality, and fraternity and the overpowering power of love.

In this production, Polish film, opera, and theater director Mariusz Trelinski chose not to make this a period, costume drama. Rather he chose to highlight the thematic constancy of oppression and terror that has existed and still exists in history and time. Consequently, abstract costume changes serve to show the progression of time, purportedly starting out in 18th century France, with highly stylized costumes in macabre-looking black and white themes and ghostly looking makeup, and ending up somewhere in contemporary time.

Trelinski’s visuals, as advanced by Boris Kudlicka’s set design, are stark and dramatic, such as splattered blood that we see drip down a wall, an imposing red guillotine, and black silhouettes against a red backdrop. The images throughout make strong visual statements. Appropriately, the final scene made a direct, highly dramatic statement, although not quite the one anticipated. Trelinski had Chénier and Maddalena being gassed in a chamber instead of dying by guillotine. The idea or image ended up diluting the nobility of the overall theme.

At the heart of the opera and it music is passion. When Chénier earlier says “the fate that guides me is love,” there’s a ring of passion to it. And when Maddalena willfully substitutes herself for another prisoner so she can die with Chénier, that too rings of nobility and passion. Giordano’s final few moments of the opera pulse with an almost unbearable pulse of passion. It’s one of the reasons for liking Chénier—the final sweeping musical moments as represented by the stunning “Vicino a te.” Having cloth bags placed over the heads of the protagonists as they are gassed may offer a disturbing image that fits Trelinski’s intent, but the gimmick is one that ended up muffling the voices and kept Chénier and Maddalena from dying in each others arms or even looking at each other. Maybe this was his intent—to downplay passion. Whatever the intent, it didn't work to the advantage of the music or the story. Music should never be sacrificed for dramatic statement, and any operatic director should know that. It becomes self serving when the statement subjugates the intent of the music.

The Chénier cast was headed by Salvatore Licitra, who will forever be known as the tenor who stepped in for Pavarotti at the Met at the absolute very last minute and became an international hero. Assuredly he is being groomed for major league singing. Unfortunately, Licitra was recovering from a cold and held back vocally, saving his voice for the role's more high profile and high register demands, which he heroically pulled off.

Italian soprano Paoletta Marrocu, as Maddelena de Coigny, was vocally effective, displaying a pleasing lyricism, control, and passion. One wishes to have heard the pair with Licitra in first class shape. Mexican baritone Jorge Lagunes was an effective and strong Gerard. The remainder of the cast and chorus, in very effective performances, contributed greatly to the dramatic appeal. Especially interesting was the stage business given the chorus which, at times, seemed to take on the role of a Greek chorus, commenting on the action with ominous on-looker intensity and even ridicule.

Eugene Kohn conducted the orchestra with insight and, here’s that word again, passion. In fact, the passion was so marked that Kohn seemed to get carried away, with the balance between the pit and the stage failing to tilt in favor of the singers. This was a case of a production that tried too hard to prove something that could as effectively been accomplished using the “less is more” concept. Trelinski is obviously a thinker and innovator. And, in the world of opera, that’s good. It keeps all of us on our toes. But it just tried too hard. When puzzlement over what you’re seeing begins to detract from what you’re hearing, you’ve got problems. As for the insertion of the carnival atmosphere, complete with confetti, twirling spot lights, the sort of red-white-and-blue dressed chorus girls, simulated brass marching band—I haven’t a clue.

John C. Shulson



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