Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Guest blogger/spy EB reports on Andrea Chénier at Bregenz

One of the joys of blogging and tweeting--and indeed, any sort of life as a cyberjunkie--is finding like-minded individuals whom one would welcome as real-life friends, often people we might not ever have met.  One such is Ed Beveridge, who tweets as dredbeveridge. Not only is he accomplished in his own field, but he is an avid opera lover, and he agreed to report on his trip to Bregenz to see Andrea Chénier. I am happy it appears Ed saw it the night that dear Arnold Rawls sang the title role. The New York Times said the following about Arnold:  "Chénier, long a cherished role of Italian dramatic tenors, finds a creditable exponent in the American tenor Arnold Rawls, whose voice has an easy flow in midrange yet rang out excitingly in the big, high-lying moments."

What follow after the jump are Ed's impressions from the performance:

Photo courtesy Bregenzer Festspiele
The outdoor productions at the Bregenz Festival, performed on the Seebühne (Lake Stage), are a summer fixture in the Europen Opera Calendar and are unique, fusing "arena" opera with big name contemporary direction and design. My first experience was last year, Graham Vick's astonishing re-working of Aida (admittedly watched through drizzle from under a plastic poncho) and I was keen for a return visit. This year saw a new production by Keith Warner of Giordano's 1896 French Revolution masterwork Andrea Chénier. Shamed as I am to admit it, I had not seen this opera before or indeed heard much of it, so the temptation proved irresistible. The weather Gods were merciful as after a rainy day we were treated to a dry evening and a stunning sunset over the Bodensee--a quintessential part of the experience.

Apart from its French setting, and some gavottes which nod to the period in question, the score is pure verismo with big bursts of Italian sunshine, especially in the duets. To my ear, it's a masterpiece, no question. Giordano's style is most certainly his own, despite echoes of some contemporaries (Puccini and Zandonai sprang to mind). Although a repertory work, it has not been performed in London in my opera-going lifetime, apart from the odd concert, due I suspect to its grand scale and the need for three big Italianate voices. I can certainly hear how the title role would have fitted Domingo like a glove, and by and large the Bregenz forces did the work justice.

Where Vick gave us a visually stunning, cracklingly theatrical treatise on the perils of empire building and totalitarianism, Warner's period production is essentially conventional, but it is the equal of Vick's in sheer visual eclat and imagination. Inevitably comment focuses on the massive, architectural set built into the lake. David Fielding--a man of theatre to the fingertips--gives us an enormous, tilted bust based on David's "Death of Marat", itself regarded as a piece of pro-revolution propaganda. It's a very striking image--only fully unveiled as the revolution takes hold--and provides a variety of spaces (staircases, a giant cameo frame, an open book and a moving forestage) for the action to unfold. At times the images are gruesome--I loved the appearance of the tribunal, surrounded by outsize scarlet books, through a widening slit in the "neck" which foreshadowed the guillotine. The head sprouted sinister spikes as the finale ensued; all was lit masterfully by Davy Cunningham.

Warner's shows are never short of ideas, and has a tendency to show us too many at once. Here he seemed almost restrained, though there was no shortage of business. I enjoyed the summary flinging of aristocrats into the lake by the revolutionaries, and the dancers abseiling down the set--less so the peculiar episode where Chénier and Maddalena lobbed outsize letters into the lake at the finale. The visual style was reminiscent of his Manon Lescaut at ENO in 2000--wonderful outsize frocks and wigs for the aristocrats, sinister shades and black leather for the baddies (and a distinctly Sade-like number for L'Incredible). Warner commands the space well, though sometimes it was hard to pick the principals out from the bustle. Yet some of the most intimate moments--the start of Act 3, barely more than a few singers on steps picked out by spotlights--were the most memorable.

Inevitably, it's hard to judge the singers who are amplified as a matter of necessity. The amplification flattered the voices, and the ensemble was good. Irritatingly, casting is a lottery--whilst three singers are listed for the principal roles, you can only find by listening to a garbled announcement whom you are hearing on the night. Arnold Rawls--a new name to me--sounded well cast as Chenier, with an heroic, pingy sound, reliable above the stave. He was at his best in the finale, next to the glorious Amanda Echalaz as Maddalena. A singer I am familiar with, she stole the show, singing with her customary generosity (I'm convinced she would carry almost as well without a mike), radiant, perfectly tuned and soaring. She is always a touching performer and this role is a good fit for her. John Lundgren, again unfamiliar, was forceful and eventually touching as Gerard, with a big if rather grainy sound. Smaller roles were well taken. I missed Rosalind Plowright (previously a Covent Garden Maddalena) as La Comtesse as her alternate, Frederika Brillembourg, looked and sounded too young. Plenty of familiar British faces in supporting roles, including the ever-reliable John Graham-Hall and Richard Angas, and the ear-catching David Stout.

Ulf Schirmer conducted. Pacing and ensemble were spot-on. German titles (projected just above what would presumably be Marat's left nipple, thankfully hidden by the water) were helpful. My companions, a mixture of novices and seasoned opera goers, had a ball. Vive La Revolution!

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