With the exception of a few sturdy arias and duets, Umberto Giordano's "Andrea Chenier" is not an especially distinguished opera. So it was left to the singers, the conductor, the orchestra and -- especially -- the stage director to capture our attention when the Washington National Opera opened its 2004-05 season with a new production Saturday night at the Kennedy Center. And here a schism opens up, for my guess is that those who love "Chenier" may well have been affronted by the staging, while those who admired the staging may have been disappointed with "Chenier" itself.
Director Mariusz Trelinski, who grew up in communist Poland, explained his conception in some valuable program notes: "You can do anything to a man. You can physically imprison him, torture him or kill him. But you can never take away his internal freedom -- and that is precisely what constitutes his humanity, his pride and his strength. It is love, the highest of feelings, unselfish and pure, that brings salvation to the poet Andrea Chenier."
A gifted poet and onetime revolutionary slaughtered by the Jacobins during the Reign of Terror, "Chenier has become a myth and the poet a symbol of all those who saved their pride until the end. A white shirt marked with a stain of blood is an image that is recognizable in any culture, at any geographical latitude. We can see it in Goya's paintings and on 'Solidarity' posters; it has become a recognizable symbol of idealists who died, run over by the wheel of history and who tried to save what is human in tumultuous times."
And so Trelinski approached "Chenier" as an eternal, multi-culti parable, and threw in references to everything from the Russian revolutionary films of Sergei Eisenstein to Broadway's "Les Miserables" to what looked like Dallas Cowboys halftime entertainment, complete with star-spangled cheerleaders and flashing lights. Courtroom spectators wave razzing noisemakers and throw vegetables. The heroine Maddalena primps and postures like Marilyn Monroe prepping to break into "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend." The rapacious revolutionaries strut around the party they've crashed with the studied, shirtless arrogance of a team of Chippendale dancers. Even Trelinski's guillotines are stylized and unreal; we admire their design more than we fear their blades.
Some of this was effective, some of it was ridiculous, most of it was at least interesting. I rather enjoyed not knowing what Trelinski would do next. The singing, too, was generally good. Salvatore Licitra, who sang the role of Chenier, has been overpraised in some circles, which has done his career the usual disservice. No, Virginia, he is not all of the Three Tenors rolled into one, but he does have a full, clarion, wide-ranging tenor voice that he employs with welcome passion and dramatic intelligence, even if one might have wished for more honey in "Come un bel di di maggio."
Jorge Lagunes proved a deft singing actor as the fierce, conflicted Carlo Gerard. A taut, linear rendition of "Nemico della patria" made its paroxysms of rage and self-loathing all the more wrenching. Paoletta Marrocu brought a brilliant, edgy intensity to the role of Maddalena and did a pretty convincing Marilyn imitation to boot. Elizabeth Bishop made the most of two disparate roles -- Maddalena's chum Bersi and the dying, wretched Madelon. Had I not known, I would have never believed it was the same person in both parts. Robert Baker provided his usual stalwart support as the unctuous "Incroyable" -- how lucky this troupe is to have such a versatile artist in residence -- while Keri Alkema, John Marcus Bindel, James Shaffran, Robert Cantrell and Michael Chioldi, among others, made valuable contributions to the evening.
I admired Eugene Kohn's way with the Washington National Opera Orchestra and Chorus. He thinks in careful paragraphs, rather than fleeting, spur-of-the-moment phrases. Every act, every scene, every aria seemed to have a beginning, a middle and an end, and there was rarely any doubt as to where we were at a given time. He did everything an opera conductor is supposed to do -- support the lead singers, coordinate the chorus and orchestra, make a connection between the stage and the pit, and keep it all vivid and exciting.
Finally, while it is good news that the WNO has commissioned a new opera, "Democracy," from composer Scott Wheeler and playwright Romulus Linney, it seems a little odd that we will only get to hear it twice (in January) and then only at Lisner Auditorium, which has a fraction of the seating capacity of the Kennedy Center. The world premiere of a work would have been a more worthy launch to the season than another "Chenier," however unusual.
Andrea Chenier will be repeated on Tuesday, Friday, Sept. 20, 23, 26 and Oct. 2. Licitra sings only the first three performances, after which he will be replaced by Carlo Ventre. Placido Domingo will conduct the performances on Sept. 26 and Oct. 2.