Even the most casual student of history knows that the French Revolution eventually devoured its children. One of its victims was poet Andrea Chénier who lived from 1762 to 1794. This fascinating character inspired Italian librettist Luigi Illica and composer Umberto Giordano to write an opera loosely based on the poet’s exploits. The opera they created requires spectacular voices and fine actors who can create the tension and excitement that the verismo roles of Andrea Chénier, Maddalena di Coigny and Carlo Gérard demand.

Yonghoon Lee (Andrea Chénier) and George Gagnidze (Carlo Gérard) © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Yonghoon Lee (Andrea Chénier) and George Gagnidze (Carlo Gérard)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

The role of Carlo Gérard is partially based on the life of another real person, revolutionary leader Jean-Lambert Tallien. Giorgian baritone George Gagnidze’s interpretation of Gérard made him the most outstanding artist at San Francisco Opera’s opening night. Gérard is a servant who grew up at the same time as Maddalena, the daughter of the Countess. He sees revolution as his only way out of a life of servitude and at the end of Act I he throws his livery coat to the floor in rebellion. Some of the most famous baritones of operatic history have sung the role, but Gagnidze's interpretation was the equal of any portrayal from past eras. He has a huge, powerful voice and he offered many shades of rich vocal color when he sang “Nemico della Patria.” Usually playing the villain in opera, Gagnidze here portrayed Gérard as a more sympathetic and ultimately realistic character.  

Sir David McVicar’s colorful production is a co-production with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing. The opera is a fascinating study of the French Revolution and McVicar's production is memorable. Designer Robert Jones’ most interesting set was the background for the aristocratic party of Act I where Gérard lit myriad candles on enormous decorative chandeliers that rose to the ceiling. Since the first act took place in the Coigny Château in 1789, its furnishings are in the style of Louis XVI. The other acts are set in the revolutionary conditions of 1794.

Act I <i>divertissement</i> © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Act I divertissement
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

Costume designer Jenny Tiramani’s detailed Act I party dresses and uniforms were later replaced by revolutionary era costumes. Many outfits resembled clothing seen in paintings of the time. Some women wore partially transparent Grecian styled dresses with red stockings and shoes. Not only did the furnishings and costumes set the action firmly in the designated time period, Adam Silverman’s lighting design confirmed it.

The title role demands a dramatic tenor and, at the start, South Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee’s voice seemed a little bit light. However, as soon as he sang his first aria, “Un dì, all'azzurro spazio”, the audience knew Lee more than fulfilled the role’s requirements. He was a passionate young poet who sang with romantic sensibilities and dramatic colors. His final aria “Come un bel dì di maggio” was pure gold. 

Italian soprano Anna Pirozzi has had several major European successes singing roles such as Leonora in Il trovatore and Abigaille in Nabucco. This evening, she made her American debut as Maddalena di Coigny, a role associated with many famous Italian sopranos such as Lina Bruna Rasa, Renata Tebaldi and Renata Scotto. Maddalena loves Chénier passionately and when she discovers that he will be executed, she bribes another prisoner so she can join her lover at the guillotine. Pirozzi’s acting made Maddalena an engaging personality. Her strong silvery voice sailed freely over the substantial orchestra and her aria, “La mamma morta,” was particularly touching.

Yonghoon Lee (Andrea Chénier) and Anna Pirozzi (Maddalena) © Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera
Yonghoon Lee (Andrea Chénier) and Anna Pirozzi (Maddalena)
© Cory Weaver | San Francisco Opera

Smaller roles offered examples of this company’s luxurious casting. Catherine Cook was a patrician Countess and J’Nai Bridges a voluptuous, enthralling Bersi. Jill Grove sang Madelon’s aria with plaintive grace. Robert Pomakov was a robust Mathieu, Joel Sorenson an energetic Incredible, and Adler Fellow Edward Nelson, a lyrical Fléville.

San Francisco Opera had not performed Andrea Chénier since 1992, so it was brand new for both chorus and orchestra. Ian Robertson’s chorus moved in small groups and sang their harmonies magnificently, while conductor Nicola Luisotti led the virtuosi who comprise the San Francisco Opera Orchestra in a sumptuous but well paced and dramatically accurate performance. Given a score that has a few flaws, Luisotti made Chénier sound like a perfect masterwork. Most importantly, he never covered the voices but allowed the orchestra to shine at its own special moments. Watching a performance in which everything is perfectly put together is best experienced in a world-class house. Happily, San Francisco Opera can afford to offer all the intricate aspects of this wonderful art.