The landscapes of the human body make memorable scenery. Who, having seen it, could forget Hans Jürgen Syberberg's Parsifal of 1983, filmed on a supersize replica of the death mask of Richard Wagner? Keith Warner's Andrea Chénier — mounted last summer on the floating stage of the Bregenz Festival and returning this year — captures the imagination just as surely, spilling across the monumental image of the turbaned Jean-Paul Marat, apologist of the French Revolution, murdered in his bath, pen still in hand. David Fielding, who designed the set after the iconic painting of Jacques-Louis David, said he was inspired by the shoreline of Lake Constance, which reminded him of the curve of a bathtub.
As a signifier for the Terror that forms the backdrop for Andrea Chénier, Fielding's colossal construction could hardly be improved upon. But unlike Syberberg's abstruse, cabalistic Parsifal for the few, Warner's show is conceived as a circus for the masses — an opera with a phantom as flashy and hollow as the blockbusters of Andrew Lloyd Webber, playing to sellout crowds of 7,000 every night, rain or shine. Whatever its appeal in the great outdoors, the spectacle on DVD is, like Marat, dead in the water.
Rich in poorly motivated outbursts of sporadically potent ecstasy, Andrea Chénier depends on performances that are larger than life, which the cast, chorus and extras strive manfully to provide. But in long shot, they register like the Lilliputians swarming the bound Gulliver. The close-ups are no help, either, since the histrionics are scaled not for the camera but for a coliseum.
Only Héctor Sandoval, in the title role of the poet/idealist, comes through more or less unscathed, flinging out his rhapsodies in honeyed tones while confining his acting to the basics. As the well-born flibbertigibbet Maddalena di Coigny, who seeks out Chénier's protection after the rabble murders her mother and incinerates the family château, Norma Fantini wears greasepaint an inch thick and tears her blond rat's nest of a wig like Norma Desmond. The picture isn't pretty, nor is the wobble in her shrill soprano, underscored by the sight of her pulsing tonsils. As the ambiguous villain Carlo Gérard, Maddalena's childhood playmate, Scott Hendricks gets pretty much lost in the shuffle. Not so Tania Kross, who as Maddalena's blowsy, self-sacrificing maid Bersi italicizes absolutely everything. Wasted as the reactionary Contessa di Coigny, who fancies herself a do-gooder, the distinguished veteran Rosalind Plowright reappears (between the lips of the dead Marat!) as the poor, aged widow Madelon, who sends the last of her blood, a little grandson, to fight and die for the revolution.
On a podium out of sight of the audience, Ulf Schirmer, leading the Vienna Symphony, captures the Italianate ambience in living Technicolor.
Norma Fantini; Héctor Sandoval, Scott Hendricks; Prague Philharmonic Choir, Bregenz Festival Chorus, Wiener Symphoniker, Ulf Schirmer. Production: Keith Warner. C Major 707908 (DVD) or 708004 (Blu-ray), 130 mins., subtitled.