Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier seems still to be uncertain
of reputation, and even of genre. It is often described as a key
work of the verismo (naturalistic) style begun in late
19th-century Italy. It has some of the melodramatic, highly
emotional style of verismo. There are big, self-revealing, even
self-lacerating solos for each of the three principals, and it
features mostly lower-class characters rather than monarchs and
aristocrats, or Wagner’s mythical archetypes, but The work is
indebted to a former type found often in French grand opera: it
is, as Giordano’s title says, a historical drama. André Chénier
was a real-life poet caught up in the French Revolution. The
events and characters of the Revolution form the backdrop, and
indeed the dramatic conflict of class struggle, are crucial to
It follows that a production, especially one
for a library of operas on video, should ideally present that
context in its staging and design. Since its premiere in 1896,
the work has been produced many times around the operatic world,
and no doubt some of those productions changed its era and
context. But even Gérard’s final line – Da Robespierre ancora!
(to Robespierre once more), making a last attempt to get
Chénier’s death sentence repealed – will sound odd if that name
means nothing in a production’s context.
This very fine
2017 production at Munich’s Nationaltheater was a double debut.
It was the first time Giordano’s opera had ever been shown there
(perhaps held back by that reputational uncertainty), and the
first time distinguished film, play and opera director Philipp
Stölze had mounted a production for the Bayerische Staatsoper.
Stölze said of his Munich Andrea Chénier: ‘My ideas emerge
from the piece itself. I work outwards from the inside. Any
director needs to find something to latch on to in history. I
want to narrate what’s there. I don’t need to invent anything.
The characters function as they do because they act within fixed
historical images.’ So contextually you are in safe hands here.
The sets thus present revolutionary Paris of the 1790s, from
an aristocratic household in Act One (the servant class visible
in the space below stairs), up to a guillotine for the last
moments. The ‘split-screen’ effects of the sets show different
levels and distinct spaces for interrelated episodes of the
action. That has the benefit of keeping the drama clear and
Alongside the three leads, the opera
has quite a large cast of named characters. The director and his
costume designer Anke Winkler individualise them effectively. In
the Revolution, some of generic names actually referenced their
appearance, as in l’incroyable or une merveilleuse, and their
costumes look well-researched. Well, the sans-culottes character
Mathieu has grotesque facial make-up – exactly that of The Joker
in the Batman movie – but this is the only non-historical touch.
Former servant Gérard in Act Two assumes a role for the
‘Revolutionary Tribunal’. (Presumably, since Robespierre is his
master, this is the historical body with the sinister name
‘Committee for Public Safety’.) It is not clear that he would
have worn a military uniform for that role, but it helps him
stand out and look like an important official, which he now is.
The cast is very strong. Jonas Kaufmann’s Chénier is a star
turn of course, familiar from the fine filmed Covent Garden
production of 2015. The tessitura of the part is well-suited to
the tenor’s range and his baritonal sound. He is in good voice
here, with top notes of ringing certainty. There are several
affecting moments in his love music where he deploys his honeyed
mezza-voce. Un dì all’azzurro spazio, the Act One Improvviso –
is an admirable showpiece for tenors, and Kaufmann has the
measure of its progress towards increasing passion and
eloquence. This and Chénier’s other set pieces are still staples
of tenor recital discs. No wonder this was the favourite role of
Kaufmann’s Chénier has a very fine
partner in Maddalena sung by soprano Anja Harteros. The
Bayerisches Staatsoper describes them as ‘the operatic dream
couple since they appeared together in Lohengrin in 2009 […]
This is the fourth time that they have worked together on a new
production in Munich.’ Harteros produces a gleaming sound,
soaring and incisive in Vicino a te, her final duet with
Chénier. She is poignant in La mamma morta, which recalls the
moment in her childhood when the Revolution burst into her
privileged home. ‘They killed my mother […] she died saving me’.
This produced the biggest ovation of the night, the applause
loud and very long.
But Andrea Chénier has three great
roles, each in need of a fine singing actor. As Gérard, George
Petean completes this trio of equally strong leads. The Romanian
baritone has a superb voice, and effortless reach into the top
of his range. Act Three dramatically belongs to Gérard. Nemico
della Patria, his big moment of conflict and despair, is a
stirring piece of singing. Gérard recognises that he is ‘a
servant now as always […] I have but changed masters’. His
character goes on a demanding journey, and his very involving
vocal acting makes him as sympathetic a character as the two
lovers destined for the guillotine. The booklet’s interview with
the director even suggests that Gérard is really the main
character of the opera.
Among the supporting acts,
Rachael Wilson’s Bersi stands out, along with Kevin Connors’
L’Incredibile. Both sing well and are instrumental in the plot.
They interact well with the other singers and are convincing in
their own right. There has clearly been fruitful collaboration
with the director on character and movement. The Kirov-trained
veteran mezzo-soprano Larissa Diadkova made her Metropolitan
Opera debut in 1996 as the aged Madelon. She reprises that role
here to wonderful effect. The opera offers no scene more moving
than that in which Madelon offers her grandson, her only
remaining family member, to the national cause. But then all the
smaller, but not trivial, roles are convincingly acted and sung.
This is a real ensemble success in terms of performance, and
therefore of casting.
The Bavarian State Orchestra, and
the very involved Revolutionary crowd impersonated by the
Bavarian State Opera Chorus, play and sing excellently.
Conductor Marco Armiliato marshals these substantial forces with
skill. He looks after his singers in orchestrally louder
moments, and really believes in this opera. The filming serves
the production well. It would have been interesting to have an
early shot showing the entire set in each act, when so much time
has to be given only to one section or another of those ‘split
The surround sound is fine, well balanced and
atmospheric. The booklet is fuller than some, with track
listing, synopsis, interview with the director, all in English
and German. The disc has no extras.
This release has a
close rival in the excellent Warner Classics version of 2015
from London’s Covent Garden, also with Kaufmann’s Chénier,
superbly conducted by Antonio Pappano (review); that disc seems
elusive currently. But it is hard to imagine an account
significantly superior to this Munich offering for a work that
is here shown to be better than its reputation.