By Nicolas Zois
Philippe Auguin is by no means new to the Greek National Opera. Before taking up the invitation to conduct Umberto Giordano’s “Andrea Chenier,” the French maestro had worked with the company on “Tannhauser” in 2009, “Nabucco” in 2018, “La sonnambula” in (2019) and “Don Carlo” in 2020, and also appeared as a resident artist throughout the 2019-2020 season. This latest project, however, which is launching the GNO’s bicentennial tribute to the Greek War of Independence, makes him feel especially at home.
“Every French person who loves history also loves the history of Greece,” Auguin says, “and not just its ancient history, but its modern one as well, and that includes the Greek Revolution, which had ties to France. So, when I was invited by the Greek National Opera, it was like coming to a place where I didn’t feel like an outsider.” The opera can currently be seen on GNO’s YouTube channel, where it will be available until July 31.
The Greek-French connection regarding this production is not limited to the French public’s love of Greek history. The opera is inspired by the life of Andre Chenier (1762-1794), a poet who was born in Istanbul to a French father and a Greek mother, and who died in the French Revolution.
The libretto, by Luigi Illica, tells the tale of how the Parisian aristocrat went from championing the popular uprising to criticizing its more extreme tactics – its reign of terror – and was subsequently branded a counter-revolutionary conspirator and condemned to death. In the opera, his arrest is the result of machinations by Carlo Gerard, a hero of the revolution and a rival for the love of the daughter of the Count of Coigny. Gerard tries to save the poet from the guillotine in the final hour by admitting that the charges leveled against Chenier are false, but to no avail.
In the GNO production, directed by Nikos Petropoulos, the title role is performed by Argentinian tenor Marcelo Alvarez, with Greek baritone Dimitri Platanias as Gerard and Italian soprano Maria Agresta as Maddalena di Coigny.
What aspect of “Andrea Chenier” is the most fascinating for its conductor? “Umberto Giordano wrote the opera in the general framework of verismo, but in a style that was different to his contemporaries,” says Auguin. “The first three acts resemble a symphonic poem, without any famous ‘attention-seeking’ arias. It’s all about the psychology of the protagonists, so the orchestral part is very dramatic, as it aims to highlight and comment on their emotions.”
At the same time, however, the music also seeks to underscore the intensity of the conflict between rival social groups within the French Revolution. It could be argued that the depiction of social discord would be more suitable to a less abstract art than music, but Auguin does not agree.
“What matters is the intensity of those things that music can confirm,” Auguin argues. “Music is not a blank slate; it makes use of signified and signifier, though every composer may employ them in a different way. ‘Andrea Chenier’ has many historical elements that are deliberately inaccurate, that are framed from an idealistic point of view of the French revolution and of an ideal society. Giordano created the ideal revolutionary, who wants to make the world a better place. I think, though, that the character of Gerard is also at the center of the opera because he changes at the end, he recognized his error, and hopes that people can also become better.”
Auguin certainly has the experience needed to get to the heart of any piece. He worked as assistant to greats Herbert von Karajan and Georg Solti and has conducted great orchestras; he also served as music director of the Washington National Opera from 2010 to 2018, and still holds that honorary title.
“When you study a score, you look for those elements that distinguish the composer from others, both in the music and in the way that tempo is employed, so as to change the perspective. You look for the poetry,” Auguin says. “I always remember something that Claude Debussy wrote to a friend when he was composing the opera ‘Pelléas et Mélisande,’ remarking on the challenge of depicting the emotion, the atmosphere, the entire world of the opera. ‘All of this must be said using just Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, Ti!’ he wrote. And that was Debussy!”
This article was first published in Greek on kathimerini.gr