Opera review: Andrea Chénier

The Reign of Terror is the backdrop for a terrific new production

If you are mixing music with the French Revolution, expectations are pretty high. The new production of Umberto Giordano's 1896 verismo opera Andrea Chénier at the National Theatre has a grand staging that will please people who were fans of Les Misérables and want something like an unofficial prequel.

The opera, with a libretto by Luigi Illica, starts just before the French Revolution, with a lavishly staged party in an impressively rendered chateau. The party ends with rag-tag peasants entering uninvited.

The following three acts are during Reign of Terror. The well-dressed aristocracy has been replaced by a mob of revolutionaries, and the décor has shifted from garlands of flowers to red-white-and-blue banners in an industrial space with giant girders.

The people have taken control, and those sympathetic to the former aristocracy are on the run.

Stage director Michal Dočekal along with set designer Martin Chocholoešek and costume designer Kateřina Štefková keep the opera visually interesting without making the staging distracting. A series of paintings lowers from rafters at one point, for example, and later vanishes slowly so that one hardly notices the change.

The basis of the story is true, as there was a poet called André Marie Chénier who was caught up in the French Revolution and its aftermath.

In keeping with the true nature of the story, the staging is done in the actual time and place of the historical events, as opposed the recent operas like Roméo et Juliette at the State Opera, which transposes the well-known tale to a hotel in the 1930s.

There are a few concessions to the urge to modernize, so as not to present the work as a museum piece. Chandeliers in the first act are made of modern tube lights, for example. And there are some visual effects near the end for dramatic purposes.

But being moderate in the updating was a wise choice, as the tale does need to remain rooted in a particular era to work.

As the title suggests, the opera concentrates on the life of one person, and can be a showcase role. Mexican-born tenor Rafael Alverez sang the difficult lead role on the second premiere, and created a sympathetic character out of the troubled poet.

Soprano Anda-Louise Bogza had the female lead of Maddalena de Coigny, and the two have a number of moving scenes together.

The narrative style of the opera means there are few sections that can be taken out of context as separate musical pieces, which is perhaps one reason the work isn't more well-known.

The end of act one calls for a dance, specifically a gavotte, and the cast instead stands still holding fixed poses. On one had, the stage is far too crowded to do the dance properly without it looking like a traffic jam, but on the other, the scene stands out as weak compromise.

But that was the only truly questionable moment of the production. The rest builds nicely, capturing the excesses and injustices of the Reign of Terror up to an end that manages to be uplifting despite the inherent tragedy of the tale.

The story is rather dense, compared to many operas. Trying to follow the supertitles will distract one from watching the action on stage. Reading a synopsis is crucial, but you are faced with the inevitable choice of doing it first and spoiling the plot or doing it later and being a bit lost during the show.

If you know the basic outline of the French Revolution, the outcome of the story shouldn't be a big surprise, though.

For more information, click here www.narodni-divadlo.cz

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