Mexican tenor Hector Sandoval celebrated Cinco de Mayo in Prague, singing the title role in the National Theaterʾs new production of Andrea Chénier. Sandoval was in good voice, exuding Latin passion and the infectious enthusiasm that garnered good reviews when he made his debut as Chénier at the Bregenz Festival in 2011. As is often the case in Bohemia, however, Czechs dominated the production, both onstage and in the pit, with comparatively lackluster results.

Hector Sandoval (Andrea Chénier) © Patrik Borecký
Hector Sandoval (Andrea Chénier)
© Patrik Borecký
Though the title of Umberto Giordanoʾs 1896 verismo opera refers to the poet senselessly executed in the French Revolution, the central character is actually Carlo Gérard, a servant who throws off the chains of his livery in the opening scene and gets most of the stage time and character development thereafter. He was played by Roman Janál, a well-regarded Czech baritone who has appeared on stages throughout Europe and Asia. Janál ran away with the role, so thoroughly dominating both the singing and acting onstage that by the time he was agonizing over his scheme to steal Chénierʾs true love Maddalena in the third act, all the other characters seemed secondary.

Complementing Janál was Petr Kofroň, an exacting, compelling conductor also currently serving as Artistic Director of the National Theater Opera. Kofroňʾs metier is modern music; he is more typically at the podium for operas by Glass, Nyman and the like. But he has a gift for bringing almost any score to life, and for Chénier he drew one of the most expressive performances out of the National Theater Orchestra in recent memory. Buoyant, colorful and remarkably adroit for an ensemble that makes its living with heavier fare, the music literally carried the production, pulling listeners (and sometimes the singers) along with brisk, irresistible momentum.

Petra Šimková-Alvarez (Maddalena) and Roman Janál (Carlo Gérard) © Patrik Borecký
Petra Šimková-Alvarez (Maddalena) and Roman Janál (Carlo Gérard)
© Patrik Borecký
The weak link in the Czech chain was director Michal Dočekal, who has won a number of awards for his powerful and inventive theater productions, ranging from Shakespeare to Chekov and Gogol. This facility unfortunately did not translate to opera. Rather than a romantic drama set against a gripping historical backdrop, the first half of his Chénier came off as a grab-bag of effects that never coalesced into a coherent story. Among the most glaring: mirroring Gérard and Maddelena with a pair of nearly naked dancers whose presence, and routines, became increasingly inscrutable as the evening wore on.

Dočekal has no idea how to handle crowds, at least in this production, where they are mostly held back by a modern rope line and stanchions – perfect for a 21st-century bank, less so for an18th-century guillotine. He is fond of props dropping from the ceiling, most notably a gaggle of 11 paintings depicting death's heads in aristocratic finery that so cluttered the stage in the second act, the performers were hiding behind them and bumping into them. By the time flashlight beams started to emerge out of the darkness behind them, it seemed pointless to wonder why.

The second half was better, mostly because the crowds were gone, the set was stripped to bare, even abstract essentials, and the focus was almost entirely on the singers, who finally had the space and time to emote. Along with a strong voice, Janál offered a convincing portrayal of a man torn between love and idealism. Petra Šimková-Alvarez was a vulnerable, sympathetic Maddalena who matched Sandoval in the vocal heroics of the final act, when she sacrifices her life to march to the guillotine with her beloved. Sandovalʾs earnest entreaties to love and liberty left this viewer wanting more, though for pure emotional impact it was hard to top Eliška Weissováʾs brief turn in the third act as Madelon, an elderly woman turning over her last living relative, a 15-year old grandson, for service in the revolutionary army.

<i>Andrea Chénier</i> in Prague © Patrik Borecký
Andrea Chénier in Prague
© Patrik Borecký

The strong second half was not enough to save a production that, more than anything else, felt out of balance. Lavish attention was devoted to costumes, but almost none to the dance opportunities in the piece. The historical narrative seemed more a distraction than a framework, never capturing the fervor that drives the story. Occasional dramatic lapses, like Gérard being wounded by a phantom swordsman (when and how did that happen?), added to the ragged edges. And unforgivably, the orchestra regularly drowned out the singers. Granted, the music was unusually boisterous. But a simple mechanical fix would have made for a much more professional, engaging production. 

You say you want a revolution? Unfortunately, you wonʾt find one here.