Umberto GIORDANO (1867-1948)
Andrea Chénier – opera in four acts (1896)
Andrea Chénier - Hector Sandoval
Carlo Gérard - Scott Hendricks
Maddalena di Coigny - Norma Fantini
Her servant - Tania Kross
La Contessa di Coigny / Madelon - Rosalind Plowright
Roucher - David Stout
Pietro Fléville / Dumas - Tobias Hächler
Fouquier-Tinville / The majordomo - Richard Angas
“Populus” - Giulio Mastrototaro
The Abbé - Bengt-Ola Morgny
Un Incredibile - Peter Bronder
Schmidt - Wieland Satter
Prague Philharmonic Choir
Bregenz Festival Chorus
Vienna Symphony Orchestra/Ulf Schirmer
Interludes by David Blake
Directed by Keith Warner
Video director: Felix Breisach
rec. live, Bregenz Festival, Seebühne, July 2011
Picture format: NTSC 16:9
Sound format: PCM stereo DTS 5.1
Region code: 0 (worldwide)

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 here].

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 major-domo.

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 them.

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).

Rob Maynard

A striking production and three principals with powerful and skilled voices.