A glowing Washington Post review of Virginia Opera's touring production of Wagner's Die Walküre last fall lingered in the memory and recently lured me north, where I discovered that high-level artistic quality is available just a day trip away from N.C.'s central Piedmont. That report was confirmed by the matinee performance of Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chénier February 9, given in the ornate restored theatre that is the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts in Richmond, Virginia. That rococo wonder in cast iron defines "extravagant." In every case - down to small character parts - the singing was superb, and the level of dramatic truth was unsurpassed in our region (including Spoleto USA productions).
Everything Stage Director Bernard Uzan did worked with the composer's vision, not at cross-purposes, as too often happens today. The crowd scenes came off naturally: no extra was "too busy," thereby drawing attention away from the focus of the drama. Instead of using a mixture of stock gestures, the principal singers fully became their characters on stage.
The sets for the four acts, by Scenic Designer André Barbe, were effective without being too literal. The back of the 18th-century drawing room in Act I was but a gilded skeleton that suggested wall and window moldings. During the arrival of Gérard's starving beggars, the back of the stage was filled by a draped Tricolor that dominated the remaining three sets. An apparently suspended rectangle of masonry - it revealed a guillotine blade as the doomed lovers Maddalena and Chénier walked toward the Tricolor and Death at the end - was most effective, although its dropping at the guilty verdict at the end of Act IV might have been dramatically anticlimactic. Stage lighting by Designer Guy Simard was equally effective and supportive of quick changes within the scenes.
Artistic Director Peter Mark led a moving performance, securing detailed and subtle playing from the members of the Virginia Symphony in the pit. Full attention was given to the refinements of Giordano's score, which are far above the "oomph-pa" of many 19th century composers. Attendees of the Eastern Music Festival have experienced the high level of several members of the VSO's horn section in recent years. There was fine solo work from cellist Janet Kriner, oboist George Corbett, clarinetist David Niethamer, and, not least, harpist Barbara Chapman, in Chénier's Act I aria.
Opera is for naught if all the dramatic truth isn't capped by superb vocalism. The VOA had this in spades. Within the last several seasons, Triangle opera lovers have been treated to some pretty shaky vocalism - Ben Heppner's tenuous struggle through a shortened recital and Gary Lakes' weakened and tentative vocalization of Samson. What a joy it was to hear the ringing tenor of Frank Porretta as the poet Andrea Chénier. His voice was even and well supported throughout its range from the subtlest " pp " to soaring climaxes. He was matched by the peerless soprano of Maria Gavrilova as his love, Maddalena de Coigny. During an intermission, a retired choral director drew my attention to how perfectly she shaped her mouth to project her music clearly and fully. Her voice was evenly supported throughout its range, and she was most sensitive to the expressive use of subtle dynamics. She is one of the most complete artist-sopranos I have ever heard and is in the prime of her vocal estate. Gone are the days of the Slavic wobble. Her signature role is Tatiana in Eugene Onegin and I hope some opera company in our region will rise to this hint. Baritone Guido LeBrón was magnificent in the complex role of the servant-cum-revolutionary, Gérard. Far from a black-and-white villain, he is a bit like a Scarpia with too much heart and ethics. LeBrón fully conveyed this character's complex pull between lust and love, ideals and venality, and his selfish needs and empathy for others. His voice was well supported, too. The standard of diction was high throughout the cast.
All the supporting roles were more than satisfactory. After a brief tentative opening, tenor Brandon Wood made a fine and dandy(!) poet Fléville, who introduced Chénier in Act I. Character tenor Alan Fischer was good as the supercilious Abbé in Act I and superb as the cynical L'Incredibile, the spy in Acts II-III, especially in his gloating aria about using a lover as bait to trap a woman. Firm mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Hogue was, like Fischer, double-cast; she was excellent as the Contessa de Coigny, Maddalena's trivial mother, and she made a jewel of the scene involving the blind peasant woman, Madelon, who offered her son for the revolution's army. As Maddalena's faithful and self-sacrificing maid, Bersi, mezzo-soprano Colleen Firstenberger was outstanding in every way. Baritone Eric Strong as the demagogue Mathieu and baritone Kevin Kees as Chénier's friend Roucher were very effective and firmly sung. Even in the brief bit part of the bribable prison guard Schmidt, who "Knows nothing," bass Robert Brown gave a solid performance. Members of the chorus fully conveyed their characters, whether mindless aristocrats in Act I or the more terrifyingly mindless mob of the people in Act II.
The auditorium was well filled with an enthusiastic and very diverse audience, from the very old to well-behaved elementary-school-aged youngsters; there was as well a much broader racial mix than we often see in the Triangle. The latter also applied to the chorus and extras. Requests to silence watches and phones were most welcome and effective.
Opera in North Carolina, at least in the Triangle, ought to take the solid achievement of the Virginia Opera Company as a goal to emulate. The 2003 season ends with Puccini's La Bohème in late April and early May in Norfolk and in mid-May in Richmond. The four operas of the 2003-4 season will be Puccini's Madame Butterfly, Mozart's Die Zauberflöte, Verdi's Rigoletto, and Beethoven's Fidelio.