Yesterday I went to see a convoluted story about French revolutionaries, as belted out at top volume to serviceable but hardly creative ballads. No, I didn’t go to the Les misérables movie. I went to see Roberto Alagna in Opera Orchestra of New York’s concert presentation of Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier.

Recently, the New Yorker film critic David Denby blasted Les Mis as cheap melodrama, manipulative and poorly composed, and suggested opera as a more artistically worthwhile pursuit. Mr Denby had perhaps not yet made the acquaintance of Andrea Chénier, whose convoluted plot makes Les Mis look like Greek tragedy, and whose score never met a big bang that it didn’t love; nor does it manage to muster up more than a few memorable tunes. The presumption that opera, solely by virtue of its present-day cultural prestige, is inevitably more arty than the 1980s megamusical displays a certain historical short-sightedness: Andrea Chénier is obviously the Les Mis of 1896.

Yet Denby misses the larger point: when done right, this kind of thing is great fun. When imbued with zest and life, it successfully bypasses a skeptical mind and heads straight to the gut, if you let it. Did these crooning French revolutionaries, any of them, advance art, or stir our hearts to advance more liberté, égalité, and fraternité? Eh, probably not, but hopefully we had a good time, and maybe cried at the end too. This kind of thing is best when we don’t take it too seriously, think about it too hard, or expect things of it that it is not interested in delivering.

But unfortunately OONY’s Sunday afternoon presentation failed to deliver the primal thrills that are this opera’s greatest virtue. OONY’s performances are often slapdash affairs, but sometimes a certain alchemy can arise from this spontaneity. This one just seemed messy and half-hearted, and indifference is fatal to melodrama.

Roberto Alagna gave his role debut as the titular revolutionary poet, and it sounds like he has some way to go before he can offer a compelling portrayal. He seemed poorly prepared and unsure of the music, and his customarily exuberant, likable stage persona was absent in favor of burying his eyes in the score, with an occasional glance over his shoulder at the conductor. The opening of the “Improvviso”, a tricky, rhythmically free declamation, became so uncoordinated that Alagna stopped and began the whole section again, and he missed one of his entrances in Act II, awkwardly rushing onstage. While evidently suffering from a cold (as well as personal drama – last week the end of his very public marriage to Angela Gheorghiu was announced), it seemed unclear whether he should have been onstage at all. Vocally, he did not sound that bad. His voice has an attractive burnished quality in the middle register, and while high notes are a struggle he can fire off some good ones on occasion. But the romantic poet-hero was nowhere in evidence, and a big crack on the last note closed this unfortunate assumption.

The most complete performance of the afternoon was George Petean as Gérard. Gérard is possibly the most interesting character in the opera, going from downtrodden servant to revolutionary to villain to would-be redeemer. Petean’s big, powerful voice has a noble sound, and it rang out over the rather loud orchestra, and while he couldn’t carry the story entirely by himself, his aria “Nemico della patria” was the highlight of the performance. As tragic aristocrat Maddalena, soprano Kristin Lewis sounded somewhat stretched, her middle register often buried by the orchestra and her diction unclear. After some warming up, though, she showed promisingly silvery high notes, and, when audible, lovely tone in the middle as well. She and Alagna barely looked at each other, but she is a promising talent and I hope we will be able to hear her again in a more appropriate role where she can bring more of her own personality to her performance.

The supporting cast was adequate but unmemorable with the notable exception of veteran Rosalind Elias as Madelon, a five-minute cameo that nearly stole the show. Unlike nearly everyone else, she acted the part of a mysterious old woman to the hilt, showing how much can be done with very little stage time and, at this point in her career (she is 83 years old!) not much voice either. Hobbling with a dramatic cowl and occasionally raising her hands to the heavens, she was a one-woman drama unto herself.

Conductor Alberto Veronesi kept things moving and, under the circumstances, together, but brought little sense of color and contrast to this noisy score. Giordano was not a great composer, but Chénier’s juxtaposition of patriotic songs, lung-busting high notes, and sarcastic aristocratic dances can be exciting when painted with chiaroscuro. This seemed to escape Veronesi, whose work was unremittingly loud and unsubtle (making the score sound like a C-grade Tosca by way of Adriana Lecouvreur), but to be fair he had other problems on his hands.

The Opera Orchestra of New York is an invaluable institution, and one hopes they can get back on their feet soon.