Six or so Reasons to Experience “Andrea Chénier” at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House

The San Francisco Opera’s 2016-17 season is filled with delights. For me, the highlights include the world premiere of an opera based on the supreme achievement of classical Chinese literature, The Dream of the Red Chamber and a new Francesca Zambello production of Verdi’s “Aida”.

It also includes the return of Puccini’s “La Boheme” in 2017, the opera that 50 years earlier was the occasion of the San Francisco Opera debut of Luciano Pavarotti, who from 1967 through 1981 sang 11 different roles in San Francisco, including six role debuts.

The summer “Boheme” will provide the occasion to celebrate the significance of the exciting and mutually beneficial relationship between Pavarotti, the city of San Francisco, and the San Francisco Opera that was the talk of the town four and five decades ago, but now seems unknown or forgotten.

Why “Andrea Chénier” is the San Francisco Opera’s “Must-See”

For me, the “must-see” opera is the first of the company’s nine productions – Giordano’s “Andrea Chénier”, the richly melodious and unabashedly melodramatic account of the private lives of three persons during the chaotic times of the French Revolution.

The opera is a perfect demonstration of verismo, the great synthesis of the operatic heritage of Wagner, Verdi and such Romantic French composers as Bizet and Massenet. It requires power voices, a big, resonating orchestral sound, and spectacle. 

The cast and production that San Francisco Opera has assembled promises all of that.

[Below: Act I of “Andrea Chénier”, taking place in the salon of the noble diCoigny family during the early moments of the French Revolution; edited image, based on a Bill Cooper photograph for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.]


Sir David McVicar’s Production

Opera is a sensual experience. The visual senses are enhanced by an eyecatching production whose every element helps tell this story. One of the contemporary masters of opera production and stagecraft is a Glasgow Scot, David McVicar, with an early career “bad boy” reputation, but whose ingenious approach to opera stagecraft earned him Queen’s Honors and a knighthood.

Last year, the San Francisco Opera mounted two of the most ambitious of McVicar’s stunning productions – those of Berlioz’ “Les Troyens (The Trojans)”, the largest production ever to be on the San Francisco Opera stage, and Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger”.

This year, it’s San Francisco’s turn to see its opera company’s elegant “Chénier” co-production with the London’s Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

[Below: the revolutionary tribunal in Sir David McVicar’s production of Giordano’s “Andrea Chénier”; edited image, based on a Bill Cooper photograph for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.]


Yonghoon Lee’s Andrea Chénier

Chénier is a role with a big aria in each of the four acts and a stunning duet with soprano at the opera’s close.

The title role is the assignment of South Korean tenor Yonghoon Lee, on whose performances in Zurich (as Chénier) I reported previously. [See True Verismo: Nello Santi Conducts Yonghoon Lee, Martina Serafin, Lucio Gallo in “Andrea Chénier” – Zurich Opera, May 4, 2014.]

[Below: South Korean spinto tenor Yonghoon Lee; edited image, based on a publicity photograph.]


Of his Calaf, I had reported that “I had known Yonghoon Lee by reputation, but was impressed seeing him in person by his expansive spinto voice, nicely tailored to Calaf’s great third act aria and his commanding presence in the earlier acts [See Yonghoon Lee’s Calaf Tames Theorin’s Time-Traveling Turandot – Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, November 28, 2012].”

Of his Manrico, which I experienced in an opera house even larger than the War Memorial, I reported “One of the greatest and most demanding of Verdi’s dramatic tenor parts, the role of Manrico provides more evidence that Yonghoon Lee is an exciting force in the weightier tenor roles of the Italian repertory.

“In McVicar’s production [of Verdi’s ‘Il Trovatore’], he even gets to show his acting skills . . . His delivery of Verdi’s strong melodic line may, at times, strike one as indulgent, but overall he is like a reborn Golden Age tenor having returned to the opera stage [Review: Golden Age Verdi Singing for Lyric Opera’s “Il Trovatore” – Chicago, October 27, 2014.]”

Anna Pirozzi’s Maddalena di Coigny

Anna Pirozzi’s recent successes in Europe have created strong interest in Pirozzi’s Amerian debut in San Francisco. She has the vocal requisites to adopt the repertory of the great mid-century Italian soprano, Renata Tebaldi.

[Below: Italian soprano Anna Pirozzi; resized image of a publicity photograph.]


In fact, she is following Tebaldi in choosing San Francisco Opera for her American debut, in a role that Tebaldi performed at the War Memorial Opera House to great acclaim [see 50 Year Anniversaries: Richard Tucker’s “Andrea Chénier” with Tebaldi and Bastianini – San Francisco Opera, September 16, 1965 and 50 Year Anniversaries: “Andrea Chénier” with Gibin, Tebaldi and Bastianini – San Francisco Opera, October 2, 1965].

George Gagnidze’s Carlo Gérard

The role of Carlo Gérard is one of the pinnacles of the Italian baritone repertory. San Francisco mounted the opera with some of the greatest baritones of the 20th century. Gerard’s two great arias Compiacente a’ colloqui and Nemico della Patria would themselves be sufficient reason to perform this opera.

I myself have seen Gérard performed at the War Memorial  two times each with Ettore Bastianini and Cornell MacNeil and once with Paolo Gavanelli – the latter a great 21st century baritone as well.

I’m looking forward to hearing Gagnidze, whose voice and acting I have admired [see Conlon Conducts Musically Impressive “Rigoletto” – Los Angeles Opera, December 2, 2010.]

[Below: Georgian baritone George Gagnidze; edited image of a Maik Reishaus photograph, courtesy of George Gagnidze.]

GEORGE GAGNIDZE (425) Maik Reishaus

In a recent conversation with Mr Gagnidze, discussing the baritones who had sung the role at the War Memorial Opera House, he replied “I am elated to make my role as Carlo Gérard in ‘Andrea Chénier’ in this historic opera house, following in the footsteps of such operatic luminaries such as Carlo Tagliabue, Leonard Warren and Ettore Bastianini among others, true giants that I hope I can honor with my performance.

“I am aware that ‘Andrea Chénier’, an opera with such a pivotal baritone character, has seldom been performed here in San Francisco, and I am thrilled to take part in this special occasion.”

“I am also immensely honored”, Gagnidze said, “to work for the first time with two of the most esteemed artists of our time, the SFO musical director, the great conductor Maestro Nicola Luisotti, and David McVicar, a very insightful and keen stage director.”

[Below: the final scene of Sir David McVicar’s production of Giordano’s “Andrea Chénier”; edited image, based on a Bill Cooper photograph for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.]


Maestro Nicola Luisotti and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus

For the past eight season opening nights, San Francisco Opera’s music director, Maestro Nicola Luisotti has led the San Francisco Opera orchestra in rousing performances of Italian opera repertory classics, demonstrating his passion for the music of Bellini, Verdi, Boito and Puccini.

[Maestro Nicola Luisotti; resized image of a publicity photograph.]


The San Francisco Opera has the advantage of having its own opera orchestra and chorus, that over the decades have become formidable artistic entities. The opera company’s resident orchestra is comprised of musicians who not only are instrumental virtuosi, but also have long experience with accompanying operatic voices.

Similarly, the resident chorus not only sings brilliantly, but has long experience in acting, having met the demands of many of the great contemporary theatrical directors who have directed the action on the War Memorial Opera House stage.

The War Memorial Opera House

The War Memorial Opera House is one of the most beautiful buildings in North America, with an interior that ranks among the world’s great opera houses, both visually and acoustically.

Although the opera house nicely frames operas as diverse as those written in baroque and contemporary styles, it is an especially felicitous venue for performing the big Romantic era works of Wagner, Verdi, Puccini, Richard Strauss and French grand opera.

[Below: the War Memorial Opera House interior from the opera house stage; edited image, based on a David Wakely photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Its open orchestral pit produces the big wall of sound that Wagner, Puccini and Umberto Giordano, the composer of “Andrea Chénier”, intended to accompany the melodramatic highpoints of their operas.

The combination of Sir David McVicar’s production, of Maestro Nicola Luisotti and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus, the power cast that has been assembled and the surroundings of the War Memorial Opera House should make “Andrea Chénier” a memorable evening for the veteran opera-goer and, as well, a great introduction to the person new to opera, who wishes to see a performance of grand opera, encompassed in a world-class setting.