A minor miracle occurred on opening night of Washington National Opera’s new season. It wasn’t the fact that Umberto Giordano’s immensely likable, infrequently produced Andrea Chénier was being given a long-overdue airing, in all its melodramatic glory, on the Opera House stage. Nor was it the opportunity to hear one of the recently anointed candidates for the “Fourth Tenor” position, Salvatore Licitra, prove that his voice more than lives up to its hype.

No, the miracle was watching a maverick Eastern European stage director turn a resolutely old-school opera on its head without apology—and seeing a Kennedy Center audience actually buy it. I mean, let’s face it: Most of the WNO’s ventures into the realm of high-concept stage direction have met with dyspeptic looks, grave mutterings at intermission, and tepid applause. (The need for appeasing the WNO subscriber base clearly hasn’t eluded Artistic Director Plácido Domingo. To compare the risk-taking programming and the Who’s Who of experimental directors found at Domingo’s other company, the Los Angeles Opera, with the play-it-safe fare and play-it-even-safer directing roster we’re handed here in Washington is a disheartening exercise.) Yet here was this famously tradition-bound audience, not just rising for the ubiquitous standing O given at the end of pretty much anything at the KenCen, but actually cheering the director and design team.

And mind you, this staging isn’t a case of mere visual abstraction, pop-cultural updating, or hi-tech razzle-dazzle. Director Mariusz Trelinski has reimagined this Reign of Terror–set story of real-life aristocrat and poet Chénier, whose populist sympathies couldn’t keep him from losing his head, as a surreally free-ranging, postmodern fantasy in which art-deco Hollywood rubs shoulders with Italian fascism and the guillotine shares stage space with a 21st-century gas chamber. And, as in any postmodern production worth its salt, the polyglot, schizophrenic world created here evinces its own bizarre logic and cohesion.

In Trelinski’s most effective coup de théâtre, at the opening of Act 2, high-kicking, red-white-and-blue-clad Vegas showgirls push around a group of cadaverous, wheelchair-bound, 18th-century aristocrats, who wave elegantly to the audience while clutching their own severed heads. It’s an indelible image, one fit for an asylum, and that’s clearly one of the points being made here: that hate masquerading as nationalism, and extremist zeal fueled by good old-fashioned greed, have turned the country into a madhouse of showbiz patriotism and bloodshed. I had to remind myself while watching the scene that red, white, and blue are also the colors of the French.

Not everything works in the director’s storytelling, however. The tottering, narcoleptic gentry and fluttering servants in the opening scene skirt dangerously close to camp, and, in that same scene, the cartoonish Jean Harlowisms of Maddalena, the upper-class heroine whose eyes are opened by the compassion in Chénier’s poetry, hardly suggest the depth and sensitivity that Chénier senses in her. As the production progresses, however, the audacious mischief of the first two acts evolves into something more chilling and focused—as, indeed, the entire story moves into an ever-darker, dystopian world. Throughout, Trelinski is aided by sets from Boris Kudlicka that spring surprises with every scene, stunningly imaginative wig, costume, and makeup designs by Magdalena Teslawska and Pawel Grabarczyk, and lighting by Felice Ross that suggests the hyperreality of dreams.

In a production with no shortage of compelling ideas and images, it might be easy to forget that Giordano wrote a gorgeous score, with sweet, ripe, heart-on-the-sleeve melodies for a troika of big Italian voices. Not here: The WNO cast knows just how this score needs to sound. And if only two out of the three leads truly satisfy, all of them sound fully and idiomatically engaged in their roles. Preproduction interest has been, not unexpectedly, focused on Licitra, the tenor who two years ago replaced Pavarotti at the eleventh hour when the flu-ridden elder tenor canceled his reputed farewell performance at the Met and left $1,000-plus ticket-holders fuming. That Met evening reportedly left critics and patrons alike whispering “Next Big Thing,” and Licitra’s performance here in Chénier (at least on the evidence of opening night) is pretty much a knockout.

There are, admittedly, chinks in his vocal armor—mostly a tendency to sing everything on the loud side (not that he’s the first tenor, especially in this role, to be guilty of that) and an occasional inconsistency of tone on sustained notes. That said, the handsome, baritonal cast of his voice, its cannonlike power, and its sure, gleaming high notes—not to mention his fluid way with Italian phrasing—are exhilarating. He’s an appealing presence onstage, as well—compact, attractive, slightly ursine, with acting that’s rudimentary, but natural and engaging all the same. Don’t get too excited, though: By the time you read this, Licitra will have sung his three-out-of-seven performances and skipped town, to be replaced by Italo-Uruguyan singer Carlo Ventre.

Baritone Jorge Lagunes is doing his best WNO work thus far, as servant-turned-revolutionary-leader Carlo Gérard. The chestnut coloring of his voice and his beautifully turned legato serve him well in the role, and, if his sound is one size too small for this traditionally beefy part, he possesses exactly the right Italianate timbre to satisfy in Gérard’s music. As an actor, he’s always been a little bit hangdog in his demeanor, a tendency that has on occasion clouded his Latin good looks and muted his character work. But under Trelinski’s direction, Lagunes creates a subtly delivered, three-dimensional portrayal of this conflicted character—brooding, proud, and embittered by turns, and ultimately crushed by his unrequited love for Maddalena, the unattainable daughter of his former employers. His Scarpia-like manhandling of her in Act 3 ratchets up the tension nicely.

Maddalena is soprano Paoletta Marrocu, a fine actress (her performance gains greater depth and credibility after those italicized early scenes), who cuts a strikingly attractive figure onstage. She also has the weight of voice and palpable emotion in her phrasing to keep the listener engaged in the drama. Unfortunately, at least half the time, her singing takes on a slicing edge, and on certain vowel sounds her high notes narrow and curdle distressingly. The kind of full-toned, passionate voice required by this opera has become a rarity these days, but that fact doesn’t make Marrocu’s any easier on the ear when that vinegar kicks in.

There is fine work as always from Robert Baker, James Shaffran, John Marcus Bindel (making the Robespierre-like Mathieu a quietly menacing, humorless creep), and, especially, Elizabeth Bishop in a pair of highly contrasted roles. Giordano’s impulsive, often rhapsodic score is well-handled by conductor Eugene Kohn, who’s a damn sight more exciting than, say, Heinz Fricke tends to be in Italian repertoire, not to mention more disciplined than Domingo when he’s wearing his conductor’s hat. (He’ll be wearing that hat, in fact, for the last two performances of the run.) What I don’t hear from Kohn is the compulsive through line so many Italian maestros from the first half of the last century brought to scores like these, unifying stretches that can otherwise seem fitful or episodic. Where Kohn excels is in the welling-up of emotion that often informs the music—the way the strings, for instance, kick in toward the end of an aria to deliver its big finish on a luxurious cushion of sound. It should also be mentioned that the WNO Orchestra is sounding better and better these days (and not just those strings).

Still, for all the musical wonders on display, this Chénier will live in the memory as something Giordano could never have conceived of when this work premiered in 1896: a director’s opera.CP