French tragedy presented for modern times

New staging of opera about victims of revolution

Stage: Theater, Music, Dance

September 09, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Arrogance and religious hypocrisy, revolutionary fanaticism, spies and lies, wrongful imprisonment, beheadings - times haven't changed all that much since the Reign of Terror in 1790s France, have they? That's the main point behind Washington National Opera's season-opening production of Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chenier, one of the major works in the verismo - realism - style that first electrified audiences at the end of the 19th century.

You can count on a few extra realistic flourishes in this staging, which was devised by Mariusz Trelinski, the Polish film, theater and opera director responsible for the highly imaginative, often insightful and just plain riveting version of Puccini's Madama Butterfly presented by Washington National in 2001. Like that production, this one has been co-produced with Teatre Wielki in Poland, and features a stylized set design by Boris Kudlicka, costumes by Magdalena Teslawska and Pawel Grabarczyk.

Andrea Chenier tells the story of an actual victim of the French Revolution - the work's eponymous hero, a poet who, despite his sympathy for the uprising, went to the guillotine. The opera adds an intense romantic interest for Chenier, Maddalena, the daughter of an aristocratic family who feels the passion of his poetry and seeks his protection after the revolution. When he is arrested and condemned to death, Maddalena decides to joins Chenier in the tumbrel.

Trelinski's concept for this production adds a broader context for Chenier's life and death, which has become "a myth," the director says. The poet "became a symbol - a white shirt marked with a stain of blood ... a recognizable symbol of idealists who died, run over by the wheel of History, and who tried to save what is human in the tumultuous times."

For Trelinski, the final scene, with the lovers "making vows of eternal love" as they face the guillotine, represents "the highest of feelings, unselfish and pure," and "salvation from the filth and evil of the world, from self-betrayal and from denying elementary human values."

Instead of keeping the opera locked into its original setting, Trelinski has staged it "as if across time. Starting with the French Revolution, and gradually changing costumes, I take it almost to the edge of the present, trying to oppose what is human against what is historical."

By changing the visual points of reference during the performance, the director aims to emphasize how "the raging mechanism of terror" haunts us still. As Trelinski sees it, Andrea Chenier effectively underlines a recurring succession of unfortunate events in human history - "A group of people develop a seemingly noble idea, ... put it on banners, and, trying to force people into happiness, they implement it using terror that turns the initial ideals into their cruel opposites."

Provocative theatricality isn't the only attraction of this production, which marks the first time Washington National Opera has presented Andrea Chenier in its 49 seasons.

The company has assembled an enticing cast as well, headed by Salvatore Licitra in the title role. He's the tenor who stepped in at the last minute for an ailing Luciano Pavarotti at the Metropolitan Opera in 2002, winning a round of "a star is born" headlines. He will be joined by soprano Paoletta Marrocu as Maddalena. (Carlo Ventre takes over the role of Chenier Sept. 20.)

Eugene Kohn will conduct most performances; the company's general director, Placido Domingo, will be on the podium Sept. 26 and Oct. 2.

With its stirring arias, notably Maddalena's La mamma morta and Chenier's Come un bel di di maggio, and its vivid orchestral and choral writing, the opera has enjoyed considerable popularity since it was first performed in 1896. Trelinksi's approach promises to make it newly relevant.

For more theater, classical music and dance events, see Page 37.


What: Andrea Chenier

Where: Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. N.W., Washington

When: 7 p.m. Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 14 and 17, 7 p.m. Sept. 20, 7:30 p.m. Sept. 23, 2 p.m. Sept. 26, 7 p.m. Oct. 2

Tickets: $45 to $290.

Call: 202-295-2400 or 800-876-7372, or visit

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