NEW YORK (AP) — The title role of Giordano's 1896 opera, "Andrea Chenier," has long appealed to tenors because of the fervent lyricism and heroic thrust of its showpiece arias and duets. Both Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti sang it at the Metropolitan Opera, and before them it was a vehicle for stars like Beniamino Gigli, Richard Tucker and Mario del Monaco.
On Sunday, Roberto Alagna bid to add his name to that pantheon, debuting the role of the poet who was executed during the French Revolution in a concert performance with the Opera Orchestra of New York. Sad to say, it was a faltering attempt, suggesting either that he had not studied the part sufficiently or that it may be beyond his vocal comfort zone.
The problems began almost immediately, during the warm-up to Chenier's opening aria, the "Improvviso," in which the hero extemporizes a poem and outrages his aristocratic audience by expressing sympathy for the poor. Alagna startled the audience at Avery Fisher Hall by suddenly breaking off, motioning to conductor Alberto Veronesi to stop, and after a quick consultation beginning again. Then in Act 2, he missed an entrance, leaving out a crucial phrase entirely.
There were, to be sure, passages that rang out with Alagna's familiar warm, muscular sound. But many of his high notes were effortful — including a crack on his final exclamation — and there was little sense of lyrical flow in his phrasing. Maybe he was indisposed: There were frequent sips from a water bottle and toward the end he wiped his nose several times. It's also possible he was upset over the disclosure last week that he and his wife, soprano Angela Gheorghiu, are divorcing after a stormy marriage of nearly 17 years.
Whatever the cause, one had to look elsewhere for consistent vocal rewards. These started with baritone George Petean in the role of Gerard, the footman-turned-revolutionary and Chenier's rival in love. He delivered a richly sung rendition of the great aria, "Nemico della patria," conveying the conflicting feelings of this character, who repents too late the havoc the revolution has wrought.
As Maddalena, the aristocrat who loves Chenier, Kristin Lewis revealed a gleaming, somewhat hard-edged soprano that cut through the orchestra with ease. She also has a creditable lower or chest voice, which served her well in her aria, "La mamma morta." However, even for a concert performance there was a notable lack of chemistry between the two lovers, with her standing rigid at the podium and Alagna seeming distracted.
And then there was Rosalind Elias. The octogenarian mezzo-soprano, who made her Met debut nearly 60 years ago, brought a welcome splash of show-biz charisma as she walked haltingly onstage for the cameo role of Madelon, an old, blind woman who has sacrificed her sons to the revolution. Extending her arms as if in prayer, Elias sang her brief aria eloquently, her whisper of a voice becoming fuller as it moved up the scale.
Others in the large supporting cast who made good contributions included mezzo Jennifer Feinstein as Maddalena's mother, the countess de Coigny, and baritone David Pershall as Chenier's friend, Roucher.
Veronesi conducted the orchestra and chorus with perhaps too much emphasis on the bombastic side of the post-Verdian verismo style, of which "Chenier" is one of the more durable products.