composer Umberto Giordano’s four act opera Andrea Chenier was first
given at La Scala, Milan in 1896. For his libretto to Andrea Chénier,
Luigi Illica was motivated by the life of the Romantic poet André
Chénier (1762-1794), who was guillotined during the French Revolution a
few days before Robespierre suffered the same fate. Coming thirty years
after Chénier was last staged at the ROH in 1985, this new David McVicar
production at the Royal Opera House was premièred on 20 January 2015. A
few days later the production was relayed live to cinemas worldwide,
presented by Richard E. Grant. It’s a co-production between The Royal
Opera, The China National Centre for Performing Arts, Beijing and San
Giordano had written a couple of operas with
only modest success and the disillusioned composer stated that Chénier
would be his last bite at the cherry. Today Giordano is remembered
almost exclusively for Chénier, though his next opera, Fedora, written a
couple of years later, is encountered occasionally. Chénier is classed
as an Italian verismo opera and its setting in revolutionary Paris
featuring the aristocratic de Coigny family at its Château seems a
million miles away from the stifling rural village atmosphere of the
better known examples of the verismo post-Romantic operatic tradition,
namely Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci both set around the time they
were written in the late-ninetieth century.
At this point a brief
summary of Chénier might prove useful. It is 1879 and, ensconced in the
aristocratic bubble of Château Coigny, the Countess di Coigny and her
family seem blind to the severe danger they are in from the
revolutionary uprising sweeping through France. Carlo Gérard, servant to
the Countess, is in love with the noblewoman’s daughter Maddalena.
During preparations for a ball at the Château, Gérard can take no more
of his servitude and tears off his livery. The poet Andrea Chénier is a
guest at the ball and falls in love with Maddalena. To the jealousy of
Gérard, who has become a revolutionary official, Chénier has offered to
protect Maddalena whose family has lost everything in the revolution.
Gérard has Chénier arrested and denounces him, although he later regrets
this. Chénier is sent to Prison Saint-Lazare awaiting execution.
Maddalena pleads for Chénier’s life and Gérard’s endeavours are too late
in trying to help Chénier. Maddalena is assisted by Gérard to see
Chénier in prison and manages to swap places with a condemned
noblewoman. The lovers Maddalena and Chénier are taken out to be
Chénier is a fast moving opera, but
Giordano and Illica scarcely had the opportunity to develop greater
characterisation of the main protagonists. This shows despite the
sterling efforts of stage director David McVicar, who brings the story
to life remarkably successfully. The period set by designer Robert Jones
provides an impressive snapshot of some aspects of the French
Revolution, vibrantly colourful and scrupulously detailed, which I
suspect may prompt some viewers to investigate this period of history
further. In Act One the set of the Winter garden of Château Coigny in
1789 is generally in the period style of ill-fated monarch Louis XVI.
Act Two takes place in 1794 during the so-called Reign of Terror. France
has been in the midst of revolution for five years and the King and
Queen have been guillotined. Dominated by Robespierre’s Jacobin party
the government has enforced show-trials and has undertaken mass
executions. The setting is the Café Hottot, Paris, a dingy gathering
place for drinkers, prostitutes and revolutionaries alike and Act Three
is set in the austere greyness of the Hall of the Revolutionary
Tribunal. The final act is the rather anodyne set of the courtyard of
Prison Saint-Lazare where, through steel bars, the street outside can be
seen. As shown in the bonus video footage, McVicar’s brief to costume
designer Jenny Tiramani, a specialist in historical dress, was to make
the costumes as true to the period as possible, including the relevance
and intense importance of the chosen colours, an assignment with which
she succeeds splendidly, providing astonishing detail.
thorough musical direction of Sir Antonio Pappano the cast are
impeccably prepared, especially the three main characters. Jonas
Kaufmann plays Chénier with considerable intensity and concentration yet
he exudes a curious detachment, a lack of spark, which prevented me
being entirely convinced by the relationship between the poet and
Maddalena. Don’t be surprised if at the end you feel you know no more
about Chénier than you did at the start; this is probably down to
Giordano and Illica. Is Chénier’s attraction to Maddalena love or merely
lust, and was it noble to go along with her plan to die with him?
Kaufmann’s voice is in superb condition, expressive and compellingly
projected in his arias, especially that from Act Two Credo a una
possanza arcana, where he proclaims his own destiny. Kaufmann, although
pushing hard, remains in control.
Eva-Maria Westbroek is probably
twenty-five years older than the age of love-struck Maddalena di Coigny
and certainly not girl-like, yet after a while it doesn’t seem to
matter, such is the strength of her performance. Her voice is a
substantial instrument which she manages capably, as demonstrated by her
Act Three showpiece aria La mamma morta, delivered with genuine meaning,
telling Carlo Gérard how her mother died protecting her. In the dramatic
highpoint of the opera, Kaufmann and Westbroek excel in their final duet
Vicino a Te! They sing superbly, with a wealth of passion, that death
will unite them forever. An image of a guillotine in the background
would have provided a disturbing impact. Carlo Gérard, the servant
turned revolutionary official, must be a satisfying part for a baritone.
Tough and resilient on the outside whilst warm hearted and emotional on
the inside, Gérard seems driven by an innate sense of justice, qualities
which Željko Lučić takes convincingly in his stride. There are more
stentorian voices around than Lučić but few that can convey as much
feeling. In his Act Three aria, Nemico della Patria, Gérard, torn by his
feelings, reveals his dissatisfaction with the revolutionary regime.
Denyce Graves as the lady’s maid Bersi makes a lot of the relatively
small role. Singing with significant heft over the raucous music in
Temer Perché?, the mezzo-soprano confidently proclaims she has nothing
to fear from revolutionary spies. Madelon the old blind woman sings Son
la vecchia Madelon with real pathos asking Gérard to take her grandson
for the revolutionary cause. Chenier’s friend Roucher, played by Roland
Wood, stands up well, demonstrating his fine baritone and Carlo Bosi as
Incredibile, with the straggly red hair, makes a suitably creepy
revolutionary spy. Under the tutelage of director Renato Balsadonna, the
Royal Opera Chorus sound in superb voice, with bite when needed and as
usual act remarkably well. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House under
the baton of Pappano provides a bold and often brashly colourful sound.
In addition Pappano is wise to leave sufficient time for the applause
after each aria.
Filmed live during performance, the video
direction by Jonathan Haswell is satisfying with just the right balance
of camera close-ups. Pappano was shown in the pit although an odd shot
or two of the orchestral players during the performance and the audience
from the stage at the conclusion might have added to the sense of
involvement. The High Definition quality image is vividly colourful and
well focused, complemented by the choice of stereo and surround sound.
The fourteen and a half minutes of extra content provided on this
Blu-ray is fascinating and wonderfully informative, undoubtedly adding
to my enjoyment of the production. In the accompanying booklet there is
an excellent essay by George Hall and a synopsis, but on the downside
there is no track listing provided.
Captivating from start to
finish, Giordano’s flawed masterpiece Andrea Chenier is presented in a
sterling production under director David McVicar.