Without question, art, in its broadest definition, should challenge us. At its educational best endeavor, it should keep us learning and growing. It's not that traditional forms, styles, and sounds are undesirable. Far from it.
But, there can be compelling reason to alter the traditional, to apply contemporary definitions or interpretations, to mix things up a bit. Of all the art forms, opera is probably the one discipline that has taken the trend to heart. It's now accepted style to take a venerable work and repurpose it into more contemporary or abstract forms. To shake things up. It might be accepted but it doesn't necessarily mean it gets a golden seal of approval.
Such is the case with "Andrea Chenier," the work chosen by the Washington National Opera to open its 49th season. Thematically, it's a passion-filled work set against the historical backdrop of the French Revolution. It offers the spirit of revolution, of liberty, equality, and fraternity and, of course, the power of love. It stirs up these emotional ingredients and plays them out against Giordano's sweeping and romantic score. It can be a real musical high.
However, Polish film, opera, and theater director Mariusz Trelinski opted to make a statement about the constancy of oppression and terror that has marched ruthlessly throughout history. And that's OK. That's not an invalid observation. But, when the statement seems to be more important than the music, we've got a problem. Trelinski turned this "Chenier" into a changing vista of history by starting off with highly stylized and somewhat ghostly costumes representative of 18th century France and moving forward to contemporary type times. While the black and white costumes and stark makeup and the coiffed wigs that were mostly shells (perhaps to show the empty headedness of the aristocracy?) were curiously entertaining, the interest level waned by the time "Chenier" finished. And the insertion of a carnival type bit with glittered chorus girls, a brass band, confetti dropping on the heads of the audience, and twirling lights left one dumbfounded. The problem with veering from the straight and narrow is that it risks the possibility that people will start getting caught up in the symbolism and forget the music.
Trelinski's visuals ran hot and cold on the appeal gauge. Some worked, some didn't. Certainly the use of red as a backdrop for black silhouettes, for an imposing guillotine, for blood spattered walls was effective. However, Trelinkski pushed the proverbial envelope too far when he had the lovers Chenier and Maddalena die in a gas chamber. It was a contemporary statement that, while different, could have been OK. It's not as dramatic as being led to the guillotine but it could be OK. But, the act of having henchmen place cloth bags over the heads of the protagonists at the end was absurd. It muffled the voices and, worse yet, prevented Chenier and Maddalena from dying in the arms of each other. They couldn't even see each other. How silly is that! They are both dying for a cause and for love and they are treated like sacks that crumble in a mist of fog. All that waiting and wading through two-plus hours to experience the magical moment of that last, culminating musical moment that is absolutely chilling, only to find oneself irritated and agitated over being denied the chance to see and hear heroic love in action. Maybe this was Trelinki's intent. Maybe not. Whatever it was, it was disappointing.
Less disappointing was the casting of "Chenier," which was headlined by Salvatore Licitra. This is the man, who overnight, became an operatic sensation. He was the last minute replacement for Pavarotti at the Met and wowed the world. Since that moment, Licitra has been gaining experience in major houses and is assuredly advancing into the major leagues as a major player. It was to be a treat to hear him in this production. Sadly, Licitra was recovering from a cold. But, in the show will go on tradition, he went on. To his credit, Licitra handled the vocal requirements quite well, holding off here and there to ensure success in the score's more high-point musical moments. Dramatically, he also showed ability to bring drama and credibility to a role, which bodes well for his future.
Italian soprano Paoletta Marrocu, as Maddalena de Coigny," displayed a confident, soaring soprano that brought lyricism and dimension to her role. How much more satisfying it would have been to have heard the pair with Licitra in full voice. Together, they might have been able to overcome, at least musically, the bag over the head finale. Mexican baritone Jorge Lagunes delivered a highly credible and effective Gerard. The supporting cast and chorus performed admirably which added to the musical appeal of "Chenier."
Guest conductor Eugene Kohn led the orchestra with a knowing and energetic baton. He obviously embraced the passion of the score, occasionally seeming to be carried away with the music, forgetting that balance between the orchestra and the singers was a somewhat instrumental ingredient to success. While Trelinski's innovative, imaginative mind is appreciated and maybe even envied. His talents may have been better appreciated by having restrained somewhat his belief that what he senses historically, what he feels politically is more important than the music. The power of music is immense. In this battle between concept and music, I guess it was a draw. But, in the end, music should always win.
The Washington National Opera presents "Andrea Chenier," by Umberto Giordano, conducted by Eugene Kohn, directed by Mariusz Trelinski, in the Kennedy Center Opera House, 17 Sep.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times