Opera News, March 2017
Patrick Dillon

Andrea the Giant
HOW NICE IT IS to see Andrea Chénier accorded its due! In the 1920s, when it made its belated Met debut, it fielded casts boasting Gigli or Martinelli, Muzio or Ponselle, de Luca or Ruffo. Revivals in the ’50s and ’60s offered del Monaco, Tucker, Bergonzi and Corelli; Milanov, Tebaldi and Farrell; Warren, Bastianini and Merrill. The twenty-first-century Met hasn’t been so lucky, with some expert conducting (Levine, Noseda) overshadowing spotty casting.

But Chénier is a singers’ opera, and a good conductor, no matter how eloquent, can’t compensate for inadequate principals. Happily, this Royal Opera House mounting, from January 2015—the company’s first in three decades—offers both. Some critics couldn’t disguise a covert sneer at the opera itself, even as they praised everything else about the musical performance and David McVicar’s minutely detailed but never fussy production. (There was a complimentary response to Chénier’s soprano-vehicle counterpart, Cilèa’s Adriana Lecouvreur, in another McVicar staging, in 2010.) But their success wouldn’t have happened without Giordano, who created a theatrically potent opera, dramatically terse but lyrically expansive, with music that singers just love to sing.

That would be clear of Jonas Kaufmann and Eva-Maria Westbroek even without their enthusiastic endorsement in one of this release’s three bonus features. These two, Met Wälsung twins—she an Elisabeth and Isolde, he a Lohengrin and Parsifal—somehow seem happier in their Italian roles; though neither has a genuinely Italianate timbre—the kind of juice-and-metal one hears in Corelli and Tebaldi—they’ve fully mastered the Italian style, and they’re good musicians, too. (Their sensuously caressed “Ora soave” in Act II illustrates how this music should be performed.) They’re both in fine form, she with the often blunt top notes more incisive than usual, he with his dynamic self-indulgences reasonably checked. Under McVicar’s guidance—he rarely fails to coax good acting from his singers—they’re utterly convincing as this defiantly doomed pair of French Revolutionary lovers; and Željko Lučić, the major onstage asset of the Met’s most recent revival, is better still here, even if his lean, firm tone lacks the rounded heft of an ideal Carlo Gérard.

In this handsome (and firmly in-period) staging, featuring Robert Jones’s sets and Jenny Tiramani’s pitch-perfect costumes, all contribute their best. The opera’s many vivid character roles are expertly handled by Rosalind Plowright, all flighty hauteur as the Contessa di Coigny; Carlo Bosi, as a sleazily scary Incredibile; and Jeremy White, a grizzled everyman as the jailer Schmidt. Denyce Graves’s vibrant Bersi is better seen than heard, but the veteran Elena Zilio makes an unforgettable vignette of the old and blind Madelon’s sacrifice of her grandson.

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