The Sunday Times, 25 January 2015
Hugh Canning
Giordano: Andrea Chenier, London, Royal Opera House, 20. Januar 2015
Tenor vision
Jonas Kaufmann is the saviour of the Royal Opera’s bland Andrea Chénier
Halfway through David McVicar’s new production of Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier on Tuesday night, I began to wonder if I had snapped out of a 30-year coma since the last time the Royal Opera staged this piece, in 1984, to discover that nothing in the opera world, or at least at Covent Garden, had changed. Even Rosalind Plowright was still on stage, though this time as the mother of the heroine she played back then to Jose Carreras’s (French) revolutionary poet.

At Covent Garden since then, only Placido Domingo, a year and a bit later, has sung this opera, usually reserved for the greatest tenor voices of the day — an indication, perhaps, of the scarcity of charismatic tenorial heroes to follow in the footsteps of Caruso, Gigli and their Hispanic successors.

Now it is the turn of a German, Jonas Kaufmann, who has almost everything that the role of Chénier requires. His predecessors may have had more Mediterranean warmth in their timbres, and high notes with a more burnished “ring” — which Italians call squillo — than Kaufmann possesses. When he launches into his famous Act I “Improvviso”, a narrative that fuses poetic elation with political rage at the plight of the ancien régime’s downtrodden poor, his gritty tenor sounds smallish for the role in a house of Covent Garden’s size; but as each act progresses, so his voice blooms.

The sound may be throaty and baritonal, but his climactic notes have a thrillingly easy splendour, more secure even than Domingo’s. He looks the fated romantic hero, condemned to the guillotine in the dying days of Robespierre’s Terror, to the life, and brings a more nuanced persona, reminiscent of his Goethe-inspired reading of Massenet’s Werther, than any other Chénier I have seen.

It would be interesting to see his compelling performance in a more probing staging than McVicar’s. The Scottish director’s take on the piece is almost defiantly literal — he asks no questions, but tells no lies — and it is conceivable that Giordano’s opera is such a period piece that it is resistant to directorial interpretation (although Keith Warner and David Fielding created an imaginative look for it on the Bregenz Festival’s lake stage in 2011, setting it on a huge replica of the revolutionary leader Marat, assassinated in his bath). Robert Jones’s handsome set is cleverly adapted for the opera’s four locations, and Jenny Tiramani supplies detailed period costumes.

One could argue that this flouncy piece — its composer and librettist called it a “historic drama”, and it has more in common with his older contemporary Puccini’s Manon Lescaut than with Mascagni’s genuinely verismo Cavalleria Rusticana — needs a flouncy production. It certainly pleases the public, with only one loud boo for the production team at curtain down.

McVicar is a dab hand at marshalling large forces, but for the most part he can’t get his soloists to rise above stock operatic gesturing and cheesy comic shtick. Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Maddalena di Coigny — Chénier’s beloved, a fugitive aristocrat — is one exception. Though she is taxed at the top of her vocal range, and her tone is not ideally juicy, she is touching in her narration of her mother’s murder, and ignited by Kaufmann’s ardour in their duets. The other is the veteran Elena Zilio as the old blind woman, Madelon, who movingly hands over her grandson to the revolutionary army, having already lost both of her sons in the war.

The Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic sings strongly, but not always precisely, as Carlo Gérard, Maddalena’s former servant and secret admirer, who first denounces Chénier, then withdraws his accusation, in vain, at the revolutionary tribunal.

After Kaufmann, the best reasons to catch the show (if you can get a return) are Antonio Pappano’s idiomatic conducting, which makes Giordano’s music sound better than it is, the excitingly responsive playing of the orchestra and the singing of Renato Balsadonna’s chorus. It’s hard to imagine another tenor who could bring drama to a staging that’s not much livelier than a quiet night at Madame Tussauds.

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