the guardian/The Observer, 25 January 2015
Giordano: Andrea Chenier, London, Royal Opera House, 20. Januar 2015
Andrea Chénier – review
Instant success and posterity have about the same capricious relationship to
one another as the Met Office to weather. Sometimes they get it right.
Mostly it’s more complicated. Andrea Chénier was a triumph at its premiere
in 1896: 20 curtain calls and rave reviews. The 29-year-old Italian composer
Umberto Giordano (1867-1948) could afford to leave his dubious lodgings –
the storeroom of an undertaker’s – and marry his fiancee.
Chénier is a rarity, Giordano almost forgotten despite 14 operas in all,
including Fedora, she of the hat. Whether for reasons of taste, scale or the
requirement of a megastar tenor in the title role, Chénier may have slipped
down the ratings but has always had its devotees. Little wonder. Love,
liberty, revolution, together with rip-roaring choruses, fluorescent
emotions and endlessly changing melodies: who could ask for anything more?
Many might ask for less. Done properly, as one commentator (William
Weaver) observed, “it is not vulgar”. The Royal Opera, in its first new
staging since 1985, has done it properly and some.
The company has
commanded an all-star team led by the 24-carat pairing of Jonas Kaufmann and
Eva-Maria Westbroek. Antonio Pappano, conducting, can very nearly convince
you this music is up there with the best. He urged fervent singing from the
chorus and made the ROH orchestra roar and glitter, shifting mood with
kaleidoscopic brilliance. Just as you think Giordano’s score – pulsating
woodwind, dark, tremolo strings, a stampede of brass – can get no more
incandescent, the last-act duet hurls you into intergalactic passion. It’s
no laughing matter – the lovers are off to the guillotine – but it induces
the musical equivalent of a sugar rush.
Giordano’s librettist, Luigi
Illica, was also responsible for La bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly.
Chénier therefore has a good pedigree, though Giordano is decidedly not
Puccini, achieving energy with the gusto of a wind machine rather than from
the simple beating of hearts. The story is based on the historical figure of
the poet condemned to death by Robespierre during the French Revolution.
An idealised notion of freedom of speech may shape the political
backdrop, but the fictional love element between Chénier and the
aristocratic Maddalena drives the action. The idea that director David
McVicar should have made some edgy reference to contemporary politics, as
some have suggested, seems ingenuous. Wisely he attempted no such thing. If
the production in any sense felt tame, the problem lies with the work not
with McVicar or the performers.
Kaufmann, the German tenor currently
without rival, sings the title role for the first time. A melancholy
character, Chénier’s high-octane arias include the celebrated Un dì
all’azzurro spazio. Kaufmann invests a far greater range of feeling than
perhaps even the composer himself might have dreamed possible; his
character, developed in bold charcoal strokes, is hardly subtle. The voice
is dark and strong, unleashing incredible energy at the top of the range,
moving through a phrase from pianissimo to fortissimo as if free-wheeling
Despite an excited audience wanting to treat it all as a
string of dressage high jumps, whooping enthusiastically at any opportunity,
Kaufmann refuses to behave as a horse. Instead he ensures each aria flows
out of and back into the rest of the score. Westbroek, likewise, musters
tender feeling as Maddalena, who loves Chénier to the death, reserving her
energies till their climactic final duet. Her preference for naturalness
over excess helps restore some balance to the work, muting its more lurid
aspects to good effect. The other key figure is Gérard, the morally weak
servant turned revolutionary, superbly sung and acted by the Serbian
baritone Zeljko Lucic.
The huge ensemble cast – 20 named roles – is
rich with memorable cameos: Denyce Graves, Rosalind Plowright, Peter
Coleman-Wright, Adrian Clarke, Carlo Bosi and Elena Zilio, to name fewer
than half who deserve mention. McVicar and his designer Robert Jones, with
lighting by Adam Silverman and costumes by Jenny Tiramani, have created a
closely observed, historically informed staging. Apart from the front
curtain, a bloodied tricolor with Robespierre’s declaration against poets
(quoting Plato) scrawled across it, this is a decidedly well-scrubbed and
attractive French Revolution.
The gilded surrounds of the opening
scene – glistening chandeliers, powdered wigs and a Watteau-esque fête
galante entertainment – yield to a spartan Paris cafe where the
sans-culottes and the merveilleuses gather; later, a revolutionary tribunal
and St Lazare prison. The look is David rather than Goya, gleam rather than
gloom. It suits Giordano’s life-enhancing music, and this co-production will
go down well with Royal Opera’s partners in San Francisco and Beijing. Is it
vulgar? That is a matter for you and your personal taste monitor to decide.