- The Washington Times - Monday, September 13, 2004

Kabuki theater meets modern mass murder in the Washington National Opera’s visually stunning production of Umberto Giordano’s “Andrea Chenier” at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House. A co-production with Poland’s Teatre Wielki, the company’s bleakly majestic first-ever staging of Giordano’s verismo masterpiece is directed by Mariusz Trelinski, whose highly stylized 2001 production here of “Madama Butterfly” still has opera buffs buzzing.

“Andrea Chenier” is perhaps tailor-made for Mr. Trelinski’s post-postmodern, minimalist concept. A class-warfare story uniting a poor poet and a fallen aristocrat in a battle for love and survival during the French Revolution’s reflexive mass violence, this 1896 opera is less driven by character than by its almost prophetic vision of a new century’s coming apocalypse.

Mr. Trelinski’s astonishing, shape-shifting production morphs the larvaelike social butterflies and Macaronis of Louis XVI’s corrupt court first into players in a cheap carnie sideshow and then into zombielike proletarians reminiscent of the brain-dead human husks in Apple Computer’s “1984” commercial.

Aside from Chenier, Maddalena — his doomed love interest — and Gerard, the servant-turned-revolutionary, human kindness and decency have deserted Mr. Trelinski’s brave new world of mechanized death.

Meanwhile, Boris Kudlicka’s grim, gray-matter sets are transformed into stark, sheet-metal canvases channeling rivers of blood. They conjure up images of the French Terror; World War I trench warfare; Hitler’s jeremiads and Holocaust horrors; Stalin’s mindless mass slaughter; and, ominously, the hooded, sacrificial kidnap victims of Islamists.

The title character in “Chenier” is a modest-sized role, but it also embodies the composer’s most beautiful and impassioned vocal writing. Tenor Salvatore Licitra portrayed him with great dignity as an island of honor in an insane world.

Mr. Licitra’s substantial, well-honed instrument is already being compared to Placido Domingo’s. His power is undeniable, and he demonstrates a remarkable ability to traverse the most challenging musical landscapes without a hint of forcing.

Baritone Jorge Lagunes amply demonstrated why he has become something of a regular with the company. His portrayal of the conflicted Gerard was convincing and definitive, with nary a false step even in the role’s cruel lower range.

Soprano Paoletta Marrocu, in her company debut as Maddalena, unveiled a sweetly passionate voice fully capable of rising above both Mr. Licitra and Mr. Lagunes in Giordano’s high-decibel ensembles. The singing in the opera’s numerous small roles was beyond reproach.

The orchestra, under the baton of Eugene Kohn, played perhaps as well as it ever has — but Mr. Kohn seemed unable to synchronize orchestra and singers throughout much of the first half of opening night. In addition, some of the offstage chorus numbers were almost buried.

One hopes most of this is easily repaired. If so, although Mr. Licitra will be replaced by Carlo Ventre after Friday, audiences are likely to remember this first-class season opener for years to come.

***

WHO: The Washington National Opera

WHAT: Umberto Giordano’s “Andrea Chenier”

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

WHEN: Today, Friday and Sept. 23 at 7:30 p.m., Monday and Oct. 2 at 7 p.m., Sept. 26 at 2 p.m.

TICKETS AND INFORMATION: Visit www.dc-opera.org or call the box office at 202-295-2400.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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