Production, guillotine sharp in SF Opera’s ‘Andrea Chénier’

In Giordano’s pinnacle verismo work “Andrea Chénier,” which takes place during the French Revolution, it’s only a matter of time before heads start to roll. Fortunately, heads are more likely to turn for David McVicar’s visually impressive production that set the stage for the opening of San Francisco Opera’s 94th season.

The new co-production with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Beijing made its U.S. debut Friday evening at the Opera House, where the work has not been seen since 1992. The curtain rises to reveal a stunning set of crystal chandeliers and Louis XVI-era pieces, which dancing aristocrats will have a short time to enjoy before l’ancien regime comes to an end.

Though populated by a plethora of important supporting characters, “Andrea Chénier” essentially revolves around three main figures whose love triangle provides romantic tension, and all three principals were making their SFO debuts opening night.

In the title role, one of the most coveted among tenors, Yonghoon Lee provided a passionate, engaging account of the patriotic French poet who is wrongly executed. Lee’s lithe frame is matched by a voice that is rather lean, but it is clarion-clear with a sweet timbre. Lee makes his mark early on with the Act 1 aria of revolutionary idealism, “Un di, all’ azzurro spazio,” and his solos grew even more assured, capped off by a touching rendition of his Act 4 showpiece, “Comme un bel di di Maggio.”

The once-privileged noblewoman Maddalena di Coigny, portrayed by the solid Italian soprano Anna Pirozzi, falls in love with the doomed Chénier, whom she joins at the guillotine in an act of ultimate self-sacrifice. Pirozzi made for a lovely pairing with Lee in their Act 4 pre-execution farewell “Vicino a te.” Though not dramatically dazzling, Pirozzi’s steady voice brought warmth to the role, most movingly in her Act 3 signature aria, “La mamma morta.”

But baritone George Gagnidze as the footman-turned-rebel Carlo Gérard, the third member of the romantically linked trio, made the strongest impression. Gérard serves at the court of Maddalena’s mother and has longed for her since he was young man, but though he finds out that her affections have settled upon Chénier, he manages to set aside his jealousy in the interest of justice. Gagnidze was compelling in an ultimately sympathetic role, and his big, rich voice flowed throughout the house, most effectively in his arresting Act 3 aria “Nemico della patria.”

Aside from the principals, mezzo-sopranos J’Nai Bridges as Maddalena’s companion Bersi and Catherine Cook as her mother Contessa di Coligny, bass Robert Pomakov as the rabble-rousing Mathieu, baritone David Pershall as Chénier’s friend Roucher, and mezzo-soprano Jill Grove as the grieving Madelon all offered notable contributions.

Ian Robertson’s Opera Chorus deftly made its revolutionary presence known, and conductor Nicola Luisotti properly paced the Opera Orchestra in a dynamically lush performance.

REVIEW

Andrea Chénier
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 14, Sept. 17, Sept. 22, Sept. 30 and Sept. 29; 2 p.m. Sept. 25
Tickets: $31 to $397
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com

James Ambroff-Tahan

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