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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Opera Review: Reign of Error

The Opera Orchestra of New York presents Andrea Chénier.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Roberto Alagna sings with the Opera Orchestra of New York in Andrea Chénier.
Photo by Stephanie Berger © 2013 Opera Orchestra of New York.
The unthinkable happened on Sunday night, at the Opera Orchestra of New York's concert presentation of Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chénier, starring Roberto Alagna in the title role. This was the company's first performance of the season at Avery Fisher Hall.
It happened in the first act. Mr. Alagna entered, later than the other members of the cast, his green hardbound vocal score at the ready. Moving to a music stand, he sang his first lines of the night, a phrase leading up to his first aria, "Un dì all'azzurro spazio." Right before the aria was supposed to start, he stopped.

He looked up at conductor Alberto Veronesi.

Mr. Veronesi stopped the music.

Singer and conductor conferred. The audience watched. Since Mr. Veronesi was conducting from memory, he pored over Mr. Alagna's vocal score. Concertmaster Erica Kiesewetter got up from her chair to join the little conference, looking over Mr. Alagna's shoulder. After a few more minutes, Mr. Veronesi chose to go back to an earlier moment in the opera, restarting the opera from Maddalena's line "Al mio dire perdono ed al mio ardire." The opera went forward from there. But the damage had been done.

Was it memory lapse? Was it a moment of confusion? (Edit: Since the publication of this review it has been suggested that Mr. Alagna had entered in the wrong key.) Either way, it was the start of a difficult evening for Mr. Alagna. As he has moved into heavier repertory, his voice has thinned. He would leap from a firm, resonant "chest" voice to a smaller, brilliantine "head" voice for the big demanding high notes that make the role of Chénier the province of the tenore di forza. (Mr. Alagna is simply not that kind of singer.) He would often end big phrases early, behind the orchestra with  short notes with an unattractive tone. (These problems were readily audible in "Un dì," which he sung working closely from the score.) When not singing, he would exit offstage, leaving the show without its protagonist in key scenes.

He managed something of a recovery as the opera developed and the Reign of Terror began. Mr. Alagna managed some fine, heroic moments: the Act II "Ora dolcissima" and the Tribunal Scene in Act III. Things fell apart in the opera's final pages. In the last duet, he was fighting to be heard, drowned out by soprano Kristin Lewis and Mr. Veronesi's enthusiastic conducting. As the opera came to an end, he looked relieved.

The rest of the evening went well enough. This was Ms. Lewis' Lincoln Center debut. The Arkansas-born soprano displayed powerful, attractive tone, injecting raw emotion into the famous "La mamma morta" and creating a fully realized portrait of Maddalena. From the rich, powerful tones in her first duet with Mr. Alagna to the climactic scene where the lovers march, laughing to Madame Guillotine, Ms. Lewis showed real promise. This is a voice to be reckoned with.

Baritone George Petean has sung on stages around the world (including the Met) but this performance was the first time this reviewer has heard him. From his impressive opening aria, the big Romanian made Gerard into a rich, three-dimensional figure with the complexity and depth usually found in Verdi operas. On a steep arc from bloodthirsty revolutionary to would-be rescuer, he was fully involved in the character. You could see the change that Ms. Lewis' "La mamma morta" wrought upon him, and he made the redemption of Gerard a convincing one.

The supporting cast was excellent. Veteran comic tenor Nicola Pamio impressed as "L'Incredible," a spy for the Revolutionary Tribunal. Jennifer Feinstein was compelling in the short role of Maddalena's mother, the Comtesse de Coigny. In Act III, opera veteran Rosalind Elias received a warm welcome as Madelon, a war widow sending her son to fight for France. Wrapped in a black shawl and walking like a blind woman, the mezzo seemed to be deeper into her character than anyone else.

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