San Francisco Opera launches its 94th Season at the War Memorial Opera House this week with two premieres – the first US performance of Sir David McVicar’s sumptuous new production of Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, followed by the world premiere of Bright Sheng and David Henry Hwang’s Dream of the Red Chamber. It’s also the inaugural season of the Company’s new General Director, Matthew Shilvock.
The ‘firsts’ for Andrea Chénier don’t end there, either, for this new production features a number of Company debuts, among them those of the three artists singing the leading roles. South Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee appears in the title role – the romantic poet who falls victim to the terror of the French Revolution. Italian soprano Anna Pirozzi is the aristocrat, Maddalena di Coigny, with whom Chénier is in love, and Georgian baritone George Gagnidze sings the role of Carlo Gérard, the servant whose rise to power and whose love for Maddalena further fuels the dramatic fire.
Andrea Chénier, with libretto by Luigi Illica, premiered at La Scala, Milan, on March 28, 1896. This work also has a place in the annals of San Francisco Opera, for it was the second production of the Company’s inaugural season in 1923. It was conducted by the Company’s founder, Gaetano Merola, and the performance on September 27 of that year starred the famous tenor Beniamino Gigli in the title role.
Set during the time of the French Revolution, Andrea Chénier was inspired by a real-life character, the Romantic poet and journalist André Chénier, who was imprisoned in March 1794, during the Reign of Terror, for supposed ‘crimes against the state’. Four months later, he was guillotined, a few days before the fall of Revolutionary leader Maximilien Robespierre, an event which, it is said, could have saved Chénier’s life.
In Giordano’s opera, Chénier offers Maddalena protection when she loses everything in the turbulence of the Revolution, but Gérard – driven by his jealousy of Chénier – condemns him, and has him arrested. When Maddelena makes a desperate appeal to save Chénier, Gérard, in a change of heart, tries to defend him. He helps Maddelena to join Chénier in prison, but is unable to prevent both lovers from facing the guillotine together.
Yonghoon Lee, described as “dramatically intense and vocally elegant” by The New York Times, is regarded as one of the leading tenors of his generation. Highlights of his last season include the roles of Don José in Carmen at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and at Opera Australia in Sydney; Turiddu in Cavalleria Rusticana at the Royal Opera House and The Metropolitan Opera; and Manrico in Il trovatore at The Metropolitan Opera and Munich’s Bayerische Staatsoper. Among his roles in this new season, Mr Lee sings Tiriddu again – at the Opéra Nationale de Paris – the title role in Don Carlos at the Bayerische Staatsoper, Pollione in Norma for Dallas Opera, and Manrico at Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona.
Anna Pirozzi – to whom ACLI Milano refers as “one of the most interesting Italian sopranos of our times”, with “a gorgeous rich tone” (Bachtrack) – is a relative newcomer to the operatic stage. She made her debut as Abigaille in Nabucco, at the 2013 Salzburg Festival, and is considered one of the leading sopranos of the Italian dramatic repertory. Among her recent engagements are the title role in Tosca at Deutsche Oper in Berlin, Abigaille at the Palau de les Arts Valencia and the Arena di Verona, and Elvira in Ernani at Rome Opera. Her 2016 schedule includes appearances in the title role of Adriana Lecouvrer at Teatro di San Carlo in Naples, four more appearances as Abigaille – at Teatro Verdi di Salerno, Opera de Monte-Carlo, Staatstheater Stuttgart and Teatro alla Scala, Milan – and two as Lady MacBeth – at Teatro Regio di Torino and Teatro Real de Madrid.
George Gagnidze has been thrilling audiences since his debut performance as Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera in 2009, and is regarded as one of the leading singers of his genre. According to José Carreras, “He is not just born for Rigoletto. He is Rigoletto”. Following Mr Gagnidze’s performance of the role at the Met last November, The Epoch Times wrote that he “again demonstrated why he is in the top rank of current baritones”. San Francisco audiences will have another opportunity to see Mr Gagnidze, when he returns to San Francisco Opera in November to sing the role of Amonasro in Aida.
Sir David McVicar is well known to opera lovers here, his 2015 productions of Berlioz’s Les Troyens and Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg having proved enormously popular. This production of Andrea Chénier – a co-presentation with The Royal Opera, Covent Garden, and the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing – was described by The Telegraph as “powerful …. handsome and efficient”. Personally directed by Sir David, it features sets by Robert Jones and costumes by Jenny Tiramani.
Nicola Luisotti, in his eighth season with the Company, leads the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus (Chorus Director Ian Robertson) in a score which is described as “powerful and melodic”, and “filled with soaring arias and duets” (SF Opera). In addition to performances with San Francisco Opera, Maestro Luisotti’s recent engagements include Rigoletto at Teatro Real Madrid, at Teatro alla Scala Milan, and at Opéra Bastille in Paris; as well as Il Trittico and La Traviata at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden.
San Francisco Opera’s production of Andrea Chénier is sung in Italian with English supertitles, and opens at the War Memorial Opera House on September 9, running for six performances until September 30. For more information, visit the San Francisco Opera website. Tickets can be reserved online, or by calling 415-864-3330.
Dream of the Red Chamber will be covered in the next post on Preview.
All photographs © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera
San Francisco Opera program notes