Andrea Chénier, Umberto Giordano (presented in concert)

Hamburgische Staatsoper

7th February, 2010

The Test of Now

An acquaintance who had never been to the opera asked me once, “Do the opera singers actually move on the stage, or do they just stand there?” I, of course, was horrified to add this to the list of misconceptions about our art form wrought by decades of PBS gala broadcasts. In truth, there are few operatic works that can stand the test of being presented “in concert” - and Andrea Chénier, though full of verismo bluster and performed at the Staatsoper with some admirable singing - is not one of them.

Simone Young, the conductor of the evening and Artistic Director of the Hamburgische Staatsoper, selected Umberto Giordano’s 1896 work as one in a series of “rare operas” to be performed in concert at the house. The justifications for this seem to me lamentably academic, an expensive exercise for the benefit of connoisseurs. If the piece were truly “rare” - unknown - it might indeed prove to be a “discovery”. But if it is merely fading from the repertoire, its resurrection must be defended as a work that has something to communicate to us today beyond its historical relevance as a Grade-B piece of verismo opera.

The singers, who had clearly been given the directive to semi-stage themselves (with the aid of a rising and falling curtain and a few chairs), made noble efforts to not look overly silly wandering on and off in their gowns and tuxedos (and in the case of Johan Botha, a Mandarin-style jacket) whilst pretending to be servants, jailors, poets and revolutionaries in 18th-century France. And although most sang with informed dramatic detail, this visual disconnect burdened the singers with trying to communicate a complicated drama absent any context, and made one, very far from being transported into the story, feel only sympathy for them.

The veteran Franz Grundheber, as Gérard, sang the Italian text with excellent German diction, but still managed to be engaging and at times fearsome. There was an odd concession (to his age? to his importance?) in that he alone sang from the score in the third act, though this allowed the podium holding his music to be awkwardly incorporated as a set-piece by some of the stranded soloists, desperate for furniture to emote onto.

Most egregious in this regard was Norma Fantini, in the diva role of Maddalena. But I cannot fault her too much for her sometimes tortured gesticulating, which was, as I state above, largely a side-effect of being held captive by the dreaded shackles of the Semi-Staged. Her singing, meanwhile, was rather uneven: the lower registers carried with a well-blended tone, and for much of the role she found a pleasantly pure Italianate core, but she also had a distressingly harsh quality in her upper register, most salient in the famous “La mamma morta” aria.

Johan Botha provided a few fleeting thrills in the lead role of Chénier, courtesy of his seemingly effortless, atomic top range. Though technically phenomenal, Botha’s placid expression and at times disappointing phrasing (i.e., he sometimes peters out unsatisfyingly) kept him at an emotional distance from the role and did not enable him to elevate it much beyond the kitsch that it is.

The composer Giordano, at least from this reading of his music, seems not to have been a master musico-dramatist (or, composer of operas). The score feels more cartoonish than genuinely dramatic, a grab-bag of effects, unevenly spaced. Climaxes arrive too soon, or without warning; coloristic effects in the instrumentation feel arbitrary. One strains to find the composer’s voice in it all. Maestro Young attempted through the force of her own personality to imbue the score with more passion than it actually naturally arouses, at least to the modern listener. This may also explain the labored quality of the instrumental solos (from the harp, cello, and others), who sounded determined to express something that wasn’t really there.

A few of the smaller roles do bear mention: Cristina Damian sang the Countess with aristocratic charm; Jürgen Sacher provided an energetic and cunning Incredibile; and Dong-Hwan Lee sang his few lines with a naturally rich and easy sound.

Ann-Beth Solvang (as the maid Bersi), whom I hope to hear sometime in a larger role at the house, opened the second Act with a rousing anthem, sung with a gorgeous, bronze-hued mezzo that filled the house with ease.

Despite these moments of vocal exhilaration, the overall feeling one was left with at the end of the evening was: Why bother? Can this 120-year-old, hyperbolic period piece really serve to edify and inspire us today? I left the auditorium with the disheartened sense that our art form is not necessarily as “universal” as we propound.

It is often noted that Umberto Giordano submitted his very first opera to that famous competition of 1888 in Rome, of which Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana was the winner, and which is cited as the beginning of the verismo era. But perhaps more notable than the fact that the competition produced a few one-hit wonders is the fact that it took place at all, and drew no less than seventy-three entries. If we wish to save our beloved art form, surely our resources would be better spent not in resuscitating the sixth-place composer of 1888, but in discovering the blue ribbon composer of 2010, along with his or her seventy-two runners-up.

Maybe it will be Oscar Strasnoy, whose one-act Le Bal premieres at the Staatsoper in a month, the first commission from the house in thirteen years. Maybe his opera will stand the test of time, maybe it won’t. But it has a better chance of offering us something that even the masterpieces of the 19th century struggle to do: telling us something we don’t already know.

Bottom line: Why bother?


Georges Briscot


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Production Credits

Conductor - Simone Young


Andrea Chénier - Johan Botha
Carlo Gérard - Franz Grundheber
Maddalena di Coigny - Norma Fantini
Bersi - Ann-Beth Solvang
La Contessa di Coigny - Cristina Damian
Madelon - Deborah Humble
Roucher - Brian Davis
Fléville - Dong-Hwan Lee
Fouquier-Tinville - Hee-Saup Yoon
Mathieu - Moritz Gogg
Incredibile - Jürgen Sacher
The Abbé - Ziad Nehme
Schmidt - Kyung Il Ko