Whoever looks after publicity for the Bregenz Festival’s opera
productions has a dream of a job. We can take for granted the
photogenic attractions of the attractive outdoors setting overlooking
Lake Constance. Because the stage floats on the water and is
necessarily placed some way distant from the 7,000-strong audience,
the sets - unlimited as they are in the absence of any proscenium
arch - tend to be multi-dimensional, larger than life and visually
very striking. I remember, in particular, that a decade ago
the amazing design for Bregenz’s production of Verdi’s Un
ballo in maschera, featuring an enormous skeleton stretching
an arm out over the on-stage action, was pictured in at least
one British national newspaper. More recently, that for Puccini’s
Tosca was the major location for a dramatic scene in
the James Bond movie Quantum of solace.
This newly released DVD comes hot off the production line and
preserves a performance given just a few months earlier in the
summer of 2011. Just as its box cover does, I’ll begin by focusing
on David Fielding’s production designs. Interviewed in the useful
accompanying booklet, Fielding recalls how, in the early planning
stages, when he “looked out across the Bay of Bregenz and at
Lake Constance … I was irresistibly reminded of a gigantic bathtub.
The painting of Marat, the death struggle of the revolutionary
leader lying in his bathtub as a symbol of the Revolution –
it was an ideal metaphor for this opera.” [For Jacques-Louis
David’s painting The death of Marat, see
With that metaphorical approach, any idea of creating realistic
sets showing the Countess de Coigny’s ballroom, the Paris café,
the Revolutionary courtroom and the courtyard of the Saint-Lazare
prison is abandoned. Instead we are presented with a gigantic
head of Marat, modelled on that famous painting, surrounded
by a complex network of platforms, scaffolding and vertiginous
walkways – as well as a gigantic “mirror” in a gilt frame that
is set off to one side.
Although that set-up is extremely flexible and allows the production
to flow relatively seamlessly between the various platforms,
it is sometimes used rather self-indulgently and can then rob
certain passages of their necessary spatial and emotional intimacy.
Thus, in Act 1 Chénier is meant to be addressing Maddalena directly,
yet at Bregenz he does so from a great distance and with a crowd
of extras positioned between them. Similarly, in Act 3 the peasant
woman Madelon is clearly, from her words, supposed to be standing
next to her grandson – yet in this production she declaims her
patriotism from between the lips of the giant Marat head while
the understandably rather bemused looking boy is to be found
some considerable way away among the extras in a completely
different part of the set.
On the whole, though, this unusual production’s pluses outweigh
the minuses. Bustling extras, be they the chateau servants of
Act 1 or the revolutionary crowds of Acts 2, 3 and 4, look far
more energetic when their stage business takes place not only
on a conventionally horizontal plane but on vertical ones too.
The top-to-bottom sets also allow for some unusually inventive
action. At one point the spy Incredibile abseils down them,
while at others the revolutionary mob hurl aristocrats from
on high into Lake Constance. Later, both the condemned noblewoman
Idia Legray and the escaping Chénier may be seen throwing themselves
into the chilly waters too!
A few other points in the production were especially striking.
It begins with a figure of Death (complete with an enormous
scythe) marching onto the set where, as the countess’s decadent
party gets into full swing, he acts as a constant visual reminder
to the audience of oncoming spilt blood. He remains apparently
invisible to the prancing and preening aristocrats, even though
he sings the words allocated in the score to the household’s
Potential buyers ought also to be aware of the fact that at
two points the director has inserted musical “interludes” by
the contemporary composer David Blake. The first, a 3:42 episode
for a chorus of violent revolutionaries placed between Acts
1 and 2, features, I think, not only a synthesiser but an electric
guitar; the second sees Maddalena’s loyal servant Bersi giving
us 4:02 of her philosophy of death to an orchestration that
is certainly Blake rather than Giordano. I actually rather enjoyed
hearing them but, for purists who like their Giordano 100% neat,
they can easily be skipped, if preferred, using the remote control.
That “mirror” that I referred to earlier makes its own very
definite impression in the last 30 seconds or so of the whole
production. I won’t spoil the surprise that a very clever visual
effect will generate, but suffice to say that – in the necessary
absence from the Bregenz set of a real tumbrel to carry the
lovers off to their murderous fate – it offered the audience
a suitably cathartic alternative mental image to take home with
If the production was certainly striking, what of the singing?
Given the distance of the floating stage from the shore-based
seating, the huge number in the audience and the weather conditions
- clearly rather breezy to say the least by the final Act -
lip microphones are a must at Bregenz. It is clear, nonetheless,
that the three principals have powerful and skilled voices.
I was especially impressed by Hector Sandoval in the title role.
He looks the part, acts naturally and sounds suitably heroic,
especially in the showpiece final lovers’ duet. Norma Fantini
also looks good, though she is at times inclined to mug a few
exaggerated facial gestures, as though forgetting that less
is more when being filmed close-up by the camera. She matches
Sandoval well vocally, however, and produces some beautiful
sounds in her own showpiece La mamma morta. Baritone
Scott Hendricks, a Bregenz regular in the past few years - Il
Trovatore, Tosca and King Roger - gives a
good musical account of the emotionally tortured Gérard. He
may not succeed in elucidating all his character’s motivational
complexities, but as librettist Illica and composer Giordano
failed equally in that task maybe we can excuse him.
I was also especially taken with Rosalind Plowright’s portrayal
of the countess, bringing, as she did, considerable character
and humour to the role while managing to negotiate the set successfully
while wearing an unfeasibly large wig. In fact, all the costumes
– designed by Constance Hoffman - deserve a word of praise,
especially those of Act 1 where the aristocrats’ bad taste in
completely over the top and utterly camp apparel would, you’d
imagine, have been quite enough on their own to provoke the
peasants to join the French Revolution. The only possible word
one can use to describe them is one coined by the late Kenneth
Williams - fantabulosa!
Giving that filming on a such a complex set cannot have been
easy, video director Felix Breisach has done a good job and
ensures that we see all that we need to, not necessarily an
easy task when the lighting is sometimes quite dark. The booklet
carries a brief synopsis of the plot and with decent, if occasionally
stilted, English subtitles it should be enough to carry even
a viewer unfamiliar with the opera comfortably through the plot.
If you were present at Bregenz this summer, I have no doubt
that you would have enjoyed this production immensely. I am
not sure, though, that this DVD will fit the bill as the standard
Andrea Chénier DVD that you will want to take down from
your shelves. Certainly, for those who enjoy more conventional
opera productions, this new disc will not displace the outstandingly
sung Mario Del Monaco / Antonietta Stella / Giuseppe Taddei
Italian television film of 1955 (Bel Canto Society DVD BCS-D0003),
even though that is in monochrome and most definitely showing
its age. For a sound-only recording, Del Monaco and Renata Tebaldi
give the score the outing of its life on an as yet unsurpassed
set in Decca’s Grand Opera series (425 407-2).