Guleghina; Pavarotti, Pons; Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Levine. Production: Joël. Decca B0016111-09, 123 mins., subtitled
Live from the Met telecast of Giordano's crowd-pleaser Andrea Chénier from October 1996 shows the Met working at the peak of its Volpe-era powers, with James Levine in winning conductorial form and Luciano Pavarotti in one of his signature roles.
Nicolas Joël's production, with its set and costume designs by Hubert Monloup, had its premiere earlier that year and is still in use. Simple in detail, it delivers the essence of its settings without fussy elaboration, allowing plenty of free stage space to accommodate the hordes of choristers and supers that fill many of its scenes. This reduced approach translates well to home video, clarifying the historic locales and the action while allowing the camera to concentrate on the singers. Although the settings are essentially representative and realistic, Act I is intriguingly dominated by an enormous, oversized gilt-framed mirror, precariously tilted as if about to collapse.
Pavarotti's golden lirico-spinto sound and his outgoing personality had always been ideal for the role of the ardent French poet and revolutionary. Although this performance is from the later part of his career, his voice sounds full and fresh, his diction, as ever, impeccable. And although he was no Olivier, he inhabits the part with solid conviction. If only video director Brian Large had come in for fewer close-ups: badly wigged, heavily made up and sweating under the footlights, Pavarotti does not always take the camera well.
His Maddalena is Maria Guleghina, who had made her Met debut in the same role in 1991. She looks smashing in Monloup's beautifully fitted costumes, and she gives a passionately committed performance. The ripe fullness of her tone is so satisfying that it seems like quibbling to want to hear a bit more chest register where it's called for in this verismo-era score. As Gérard, Juan Pons may not boast the plushest or most timbrally arresting voice, but he is alive to the nuances of this complex role and makes every moment count. His angry howls of imprecation against the French aristocracy in Act I are particularly incisive.
One of the best things about this performance is the very high level of the casting, down to the smallest comprimario role. In only her second Met season, the young Stephanie Blythe scores with her Vecchia Madelon. As Bersi, Wendy White creates a memorable portrait in a very few minutes of stage time and is utterly winning in her lusty Act II arietta. Judith Christin is an enjoyably flouncy Contessa di Coigny, Paul Plishka a memorably rough-edged and nasty Mathieu. (His savage examination of Madelon's boy for head lice is a brutal, disturbing moment.) To the small key role of l'Incredibile, veteran French character tenor Michel Sénéchal — at that time nearing seventy — brings a career's worth of stage savvy and a vocal tone almost untouched by time. Mention should also be made of bass Richard Vernon as Schmidt, the jailer. A Met mainstay until his untimely death at age fifty-three in 2006, Vernon tended to be used mainly in small comprimario roles such as this one. Yet he always stood out with the kind of big, grainy voice and strong presence that should have brought him a bigger career.
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