In `Chenier,' watch the baritone

Review: Fine singing and directing distinguish Baltimore Opera's version of Umberto Giordano's work, which is set during the French Revolution.

April 24, 1999|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

"Andrea Chenier" is Umberto Giordano's only opera in the international repertory. It is supposed to owe its popularity to star tenors who are attracted to the title role's passion and heroism.

So much for the apparent reputation of "Chenier." The truth is rather different, as Thursday's opening performance of the Baltimore Opera's production of the opera demonstrated. This operatic treatment of events in the French Revolution is an ambitious work with a classic triangle of sensitive heroine, rebellious hero and menacing baritone. That Puccini learned a great deal from "Chenier" is demonstrated by his "Tosca," which premiered four years later, in 1900.

"Tosca" may be the better opera: its characters are more clearly etched (if also more one-dimensional); Puccini's plotting has the tensile strength of steel cable; and the composer's melodies, once heard, cannot be forgotten.

But "Chenier" may be a richer work: it offers a panoramic portrait of society that ranges from the very private salon to the very public guillotine; it has some terrific crowd scenes; and it has several excellent supporting roles.

And, despite the reputation of "Chenier" as a tenor's opera, the baritone role of the servant-turned-revolutionary leader Gerard is a more interesting and complex figure than the hero. The great monologue in which he walks the razor's edge between his burning lust and his social ideals is one of the most searing passages ever conceived for the baritone voice.

The opera's virtues were abundantly clear in the Baltimore production. Tenor Fabio Armiliato is a somewhat undemonstrative actor, but he is a most persuasive singer, with a lyrical gift and a ringing heroic sound, that made Chenier's one-dimensional character come to life. He also had the taste and the intelligence to resist any temptation for vulgar self-display.

Despite a few uncomfortably squeezed top notes, Aprile Millo made an attractive Maddalena, singing beautifully by herself and considerately and musically with both Armiliato and baritone Mark Delavan.

It was Delavan who received the biggest ovation from the audience. He was a rather gruff Gerard, but his singing had majesty and his terrific acting made Gerard both threatening and tormented.

There were some fine contributions in smaller roles, including Irena Zaric's feisty Bersi and Joel Sorensen's genuinely creepy turn as L'Incredibile the spy.

Marco Armiliato's conducting may not always have been especially refined, but it was authoritative and warmly supportive of the singers. Bernard Uzan's stage direction made the singers seem as if they had a purpose for being on stage other than opening their mouths. The scenery and costumes, which were designed by Uzan and Michel Beaulac for the Montreal Opera, were striking and made intelligent use of space. Donald Thomas' lighting was excellent.

Renaud Doucet's choreography, however, was poor. It asked more from the dancers than they were able to deliver, making them look foolish or unintentionally campy.

`Andrea Chenier'

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 West Mount Royal Ave.

When: Tonight at 8: 15, Sunday at 3 p.m., Wednesday at 8: 15 and May 2 at 3 p.m. Tickets: $24-$106

Call: 410-727-6000

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