Umberto GIORDANO (1867-1948)
Andrea Chénier - Historical dramatic opera in four acts (1896)
Andrea Chenier, poet - Héctor Sandaval (tenor); Carlo Gérard, former servant in the Coigny household and also in love with Maddalena, Scott Hendricks (baritone); Madddalena, in love with Chenier - Norma Fantini (soprano); Bersi, her maid - Tania Cross (mezzo); La Contessa di Coigny - Rosalind Plowright (mezzo); Un Incredible, Peter Bronder (tenor); Fléville - Tobias Hächler (baritone)
Prague Philharmonic Chorus and Bregenz Festival Chorus
Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Ulf Schirmer
Director: Keith Warner;
Set Designer: David Fielding
Costumes Designer: Constance Hoffman
Video Director: Felix Breisach
rec. live, Bregenz Festival, Seebühne, July 2011
Filmed in High Definition; 1080p. Format: 16:9
Sound formats: PCM Stereo; DTSHD-HD 5.1
Subtitles: Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish, Korean, Chinese.
After study at the Naples Conservatory Umberto Giordano submitted his one act opera Marina in the competition famously won by Mascagni with Cavalleria Rusticana. His efforts were not in vain as the sponsoring publishers commissioned him to write a full-length opera. The result was Mala vita (1892), a full-blown verismo work of the kind then in fashion. His next opera was a failure and he lost his publisher’s sponsorship. His future as a composer looked bleak. He had, however, maintained the friendship of Mascagni who helped him get Andrea Chénier staged. It proved an overwhelming success at it premiere and was followed by his other notable opera, Fedora in 1898 which is also in verismo style.
The circumstances and betrayals of the French Revolution and The Terror form the setting. The story opens in the opulent Chateau of La Contessa di Coigny as tensions between the aristocracy and the Third Estate build. Gérard, a valet of the Countess, who secretly loves the aristocratic daughter of the house, Maddalena, leaves his post to join the Revolutionaries. The poet Andrea Chénier declines to offer his services to the nobility and is admired by Maddalena. Act 2 takes place in Paris in 1794. Gérard has made a name for himself during the Revolution as has Chénier who originally joined the revolutionary side but has fallen out of favour. Maddalena, pursued as an aristocrat, seeks refuge with Chénier and the two swear eternal love. They are betrayed and Chénier is arrested and accused of supporting the aristocracy. Despite having discovered the love between Chénier and Maddalena, Gérard is prepared to let Chénier escape the danger of The Terror in exchange for Maddalena’s love. She is prepared to comply, at which point Gérard, moved by her self-sacrifice tries, in vain, to obtain Chénier’s release, but he is condemned to death. In the prison of St. Lazare the final act that Gérard can render his friends is to bribe the jailer to let Maddalena take the place of a mother condemned to death so that the lovers can die together.
The Bregenz Festival first hit the headlines at its inception in 1948. This small Austrian town on Lake Constance now boasts three venues, but it is the biggest that gives it definition. The open-air setting, on the lake, literally, with its fantastic backdrop of mountains, the stage, or stages, is built on pontoons. The audience numbers nearly seven thousand and whilst binoculars seem de rigueur, others think telescopes more appropriate. The sound is amplified and the singers have microphones attached near their faces.
Given the venue and size of the audience, big is the name of the game. Recent productions have included an Il Trovatore set in what could have passed for an ICI factory on Teeside when that company was a bell-weather for UK industry, to a recent Aida where swimming ability seemed a casting necessity for soloists and chorus. Those were operas that, like a previous Tosca, had audiences clamouring for tickets. Whether this verismo mediocrity will do the same only time will tell. David Fielding’s sets are vertiginous with stages set on several levels joined by staircases of builder’s scaffolding. The dominant features are a huge image of the head and upper torso of the eponymous hero. One of the stages is set on a book of his poems. Constance Hoffman’s costumes are in period with the aristocratic ladies having massive hairstyles. Director, Keith Warner, keeps the story concise except for some rather unnecessary gymnastic displays on gyroscopic swings during manufactured interludes. He justifies the Grim Reaper and his scythe at the start and conclusion, but I will not spoil that bit of theatre.
The Bregenz Festival does not draw premier league singers. With amplification one can only hazard a guess at the true vocal quality. Acting however is all-important. Not many can match Rosalind Plowright as the Contessa di Coigny and still with a more than adequate voice. The Gérard of Scott Hendricks starts rather dryly but rapidly finds some vocal sap. He acts the part superbly, particularly as he decides, despite loving Madddalena himself, to seek to rescue her for Chénier (CH.29). As the eponymous hero, Héctor Sandaval sings strongly and makes an effort at sensitive characterisation. Together with the Maddalena of Norma Fantini he makes the final duet a moment of true pathos (CHs.34-35), with sensitive lighting adding to the overall effect. Norma Fantini is a convincing Maddalena and manages the demands of La mamma morte well as she regrets the death of her mother and the manner of it (CH.26). As Bersi, Maddalena’s mulatta maid, Tania Kross is none too steady. Peter Bronder is a weird-looking Un Incredible.
The Prague Philharmonic Chorus and Bregenz Festival Chorus, along with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra under Ulf Schirmer are good value. Video Director, Felix Breisach, catches the colours of the lighting and challenges of the scenes and the movement along and among the scaffolding with welcome sensitivity. In case you watched last year’s Aida on terrestrial TV transmission in the UK, yes the water has its uses both in drowning aristocrats and for the arrival of a boat bringing the judge for Chénier’s trial (CH.27).
Robert J Farr

see also review of DVD release by Rob Maynard
This verismo piece can accommodate the vagaries of this idiosyncratic venue and it gets a good staging and performance.