Umberto Giordano - Andrea Chénier
Bregenzer Festspiele, 2011
Ulf Schirmer, Keith Warner, David Fielding, Héctor Sandoval, Norma Fantini, Scott Hendricks, Tania Kross, Rosalind Plowright
Unitel Classica – C-Major
If you want to convey a sense of the outrageous decadence of pre-Revolutionary France and blithe ignorance of the rich with regards to the reality of conditions for the poor in a production of Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, you would be hard pressed to match the extravagance of the one staged on the lake at Bregenz in 2011, where a huge head and upper torso of Marat, based on Jacques-Louis David’s famous painting ‘The Death of Marat’, seems to rise out of the water with Lake Constance as his bathtub. The open-air lake stage at the Bregenz is traditionally an opportunity for spectacles to rival the Arena di Verona, but that doesn’t mean that it comes at the cost of attention to detail in the direction of the opera itself or towards the quality of the singing, and that’s certainly the case with this production.
It’s vital of course to set the tone right from the outset, since Act I of Andrea Chénier sets the scene for everything that is to follow since. Dressed in colourful, gaudy costumes and balancing enormous wigs on their heads, it’s here that the guests of a soirée at the Château de Coigny are to have their cozy little gathering interrupted and their privileged position challenged by the first stirrings of revolution. Attending the event is the humanitarian and poet André Chénier, who is goaded by Madeleine de Coigny into reciting a verse as a party piece. The beauty of Chénier’s words shames Madeleine and the company, showing them up as being detached from reality and sincere feelings. But there is worse to come when their dancing is rudely interrupted by the butler Gérard who turns up with a bunch of beggars and speaks up for the suffering and mistreatment his family and fellow servants have suffered at the hands of the noble hosts and their kind. All these ominous signs of discontent confirm the Abbé’s warnings and his admonitions that all is not well at the Royal Court.
Act II takes place four years later in the aftermath of the revolution, and the opera develops – inevitably – into a romantic situation between Chénier and a contrite Madeleine de Coigny who comes to him looking for help. In a situation that Puccini would mirror to some extent later in Tosca – the similarities not surprising since Luigi Illica wrote the libretto for both – their happiness is threatened not only by an inescapable involvement in the politics of the revolution (Chénier disillusioned by the Reign of Terror is being urged to flee Paris), but also by Gérard, who is now one of the main figures of the Revolution and in love with Madeleine himself. Romance is to the fore in Andrea Chénier, but it’s aligned very closely with the history, politics and sensibilities of the period. Even Gérard has come to doubt the cause, or at least the methods used by the Revolutionary Tribunal, and questions whether there can be redemption in love or in giving oneself over to sensuality, again not so different from the dilemma faced by Scarpia and the choice he has to make between God and Tosca. The situation, taken similarly to arrest and execution, is however scarcely any less dramatic here in Andrea Chénier.
Despite the opportunities to rather over-play the drama, Keith Warner’s production is relatively restrained and in keeping with the content. It is grand spectacle certainly, but the designs are well used for the purpose of keeping the drama moving. Not only is the extraordinary set by David Fielding decorated with several platforms so that action can play out simultaneously on different stages, but there are several other hidden recesses that open up on occasion to disgorge additional horrors as the Reign of Terror takes hold over the course of the opera. Performers even have to travel by rowing boat from the main stage to another floating platform that represents the St Lazare prison. There are a few stunts where extras and doubles plunge into the lake itself, but it doesn’t feel excessive in the context. Additional Interludes – the end of Act I for example showing the popular uprising set to a screeching electric guitar playing the Marseillaise – may however be taking things a little too far.
In this context, climbing staircases from one level to the next, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the performers in the main roles might have been chosen for their level of fitness and for having a head for heights (both of which are undoubtedly necessary here), but they are also fine singers. Mexican tenor Héctor Sandoval is in the classic romantic tenor mould as Chénier, and he is well matched with Norma Fantini’s Madeleine. Baritone Scott Hendricks however almost steals the show as a spirited Gérard. None of them seem at all disconcerted or the least put-out by the tricky manoeuvring and stage placements that are required. Radio mics are inevitable on a set like this and are not so discreet, but while it’s not ideal the sound recording is good and well mixed for both the singing and the orchestra on the Blu-ray disc, which also boasts a fine High Definition image. There are no extra features on the disc other than trailers for other releases, but the enclosed booklet has a synopsis and a brief interview with Keith Warner on the production.