Elements click for a riveting `Chenier'

A potent account of political excesses

MusicReview

September 13, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

A family of aristocrats emerges from huge cocoons to prepare for yet another party in their servant-filled chateau. Guests arrive in gauzy clothes that reveal bloated bodies, mundane undergarments, weak hoops holding up skirts (and their honor). Wigs, like absurd masses of petrified cotton candy, lean at precarious angles.

These horrid people prance and dance, but their gavottes have halting steps. They are about to die. They will never really know why.

And that's just the first minutes in Washington National Opera's explosive production of Umberto Giodano's Andrea Chenier. By the closing scene, the cumulative experience is quite a stunner.

Although often dismissed as the equivalent of a B picture, this opera has had an awful lot going for it since its premiere in 1896 -- a grandly soaring score that tells an eventful plot set amid the French Revolution, with an idealistic poet opening the eyes of a spoiled rich beauty before they both face execution. But I don't think even Giordano would have guessed his work could have yielded the riveting fusion of theater and music unveiled Saturday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

In 2001, Washington National introduced American audiences to a new opera director from Poland, Mariusz Trelinski, previously known for his movie-making and theater work. His staging of Puccini's Madama Butterfly was a triumph of visual and interpretive imagination. If anything, Trelinski's concept for Andrea Chenier, a co-production with the Teatr Wielki of Poznan in Poland, is even more brilliant and provocative.

Black and white are the dominant colors of Boris Kudlicka's set for the first act, applied in ghostly and ghastly touches to the upper-crusties, cheekily to the liveried servants (one scurries about with a vacuum cleaner over his shoulder).

Red, white and blue take over in the next act, celebrating the revolution as Broadway, with bright lights and high-stepping showgirls in cowboy boots (Trelinski has obviously noted the common colors of the French and American flags). A looming, festooned guillotine, like a grotesque Maypole, indicts anyone anywhere who ever found pleasure and entertainment in the act of political killing.

All the while, the costumes by Magdalena Teslawska and Pawel Grabarczyk juggle eras so that the plot is never confined. Timelessness, not ordinarily attributed to this opera, is steadily intensified to give added weight to the last two acts, where blood-red periodically penetrates the overall blackness and bleakness of the color scheme.

When Chenier, the wrongly condemned poet, and Maddalena, the now enlightened aristocrat who loves him, hear their names called for the tumbrel, guards gruffly pull hoods over their heads. I don't know if Trelinski always intended to use those hoods, or inserted them after the pictures surfaced of the recent prisoner abuses at Abu Ghraib, but the image sears. (The burst of fog that then envelops the lovers is, unfortunately, much less effective.)

Throughout, Trelinski's keen eye for symbolism and character yields many an insight. Maddalena is first seen blindfolded; the aristocracy's let's-keep-partying idiocy is perfectly summed up by a foppish gentleman looking like an overly beaded Liza Minnelli; a revolutionary agent sports a pimp's gold chains and oily swagger.

All of this gets deep into the opera. So did Eugene Kohn's conducting on Saturday. He unleashed the music's passion and delicacy in equal measure.

Salvatore Licitra, born to sing Chenier, filled the theater with an audience-stirring sound. The tenor would have been even more impressive had his pitch been steadier, his phrasing more nuanced, but he gave the character depth. Paoletta Marrocu was a persuasive Maddalena, from flighty flirt to humbled victim of the revolution. Strident top notes aside, her singing communicated vividly.

As Gerard, the servant-turned-master, Jorge Lagunes used his warm baritone to increasingly incisive effect. The supporting cast and chorus fulfilled their musical and dramatic requirements potently. The orchestra provided a downright sumptuous foundation for this remarkable exploration of Andrea Chenier's full potential.

Opera

What: Andrea Chenier

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

When: 7:30 p.m. tomorrow and Friday, 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

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