The New York Times, JAN. 26, 2015
|By MICHAEL WHITE
Giordano: Andrea Chenier, London, Royal Opera House, 20. Januar 2015
Revisiting ‘Andrea Chénier’
LONDON — “Andrea Chénier” is one of those operas that most major companies
do every 20 years or so: often enough for it to count as “repertory” but not
for anyone to remember if it was worth the effort the last time around. And
as the last Covent Garden staging was in fact 30 years ago — a generation
past — it was a curious, inquisitive audience that came to Tuesday’s opening
of a big new international production that is scheduled for Beijing and San
Francisco after London.
If the piece didn’t impress, the Royal
Opera’s packaging was good. Directed by David McVicar, conducted by Antonio
Pappano, and with the tenor of the moment, Jonas Kaufmann, in the title
role, this show (through Feb. 6) brings together serious, intelligent but
heavy-hitting talents; and they all deliver handsomely. But they don’t have
an easy time of it with the material on hand.
Composed in 1896 by
Umberto Giordano — a lesser light of the so-called verismo school of Italian
opera, which supposedly jettisoned fanciful subject matter in favor of
gritty, truthful narratives — “Andrea Chénier” is veracious to the extent
that its eponymous hero was a real-life poet who went to the guillotine
during the French Revolution. All of which is portrayed in the piece,
supported by copious quantities of quasi-historical detail, however leaden,
unhelpful and wrong.
Strip away the history and you’re left with a
straightforward operatic love triangle: A wants B but has a rival C, who
screws things up. It’s the story of “Aida,” the story of “Tosca.” In fact,
parallels with “Tosca” run deep in that the rival here is a politically
powerful Baron Scarpia-like figure who holds the hero’s life in check and
comes close to bartering it for sex with the heroine.
libretti for “Andrea Chénier” and “Tosca” were both worked on by the same
hand — that of Puccini’s regular collaborator Luigi Illica — is no surprise.
A resulting problem is that the Giordano piece presents ideas and situations
that feel so Puccini-like you can’t help wondering what Puccini would have
done with them. Or feeling he’d have done it better.
have its moments, including an arresting statement of the poet’s
revolutionary idealism in Act I, a soul-searching monologue for the rival in
Act III, and a grand duet as the poet and his lover Maddalena face the
guillotine together in Act IV. But the opera doesn’t do enough to keep the
energy, intensity and interest going in between. It coasts, without the flow
of memorable melody or the dramatic craftsmanship of a first-rate verismo
Mr. Pappano did all he could on Tuesday night to sell this
music from the pit. Dynamically alive to every possibility Giordano offered
(and a few Giordano hadn’t thought of), the orchestral sound was rich and
vivid. As with many a Pappano night at Covent Garden, it suggested a
conductor in command of everything he undertakes, whatever period, style or
provenance; and one who certainly knows how to limit the damage of
Mr. McVicar, the director, has a similarly
all-embracing competence. Although his work has frightened a few horses in
its time, it mostly comes with a respectfully clean, sharp-edged elegance
that separates him from the messy radicals of opera staging. And this
“Chénier” is a sharp, formal exercise in grandeur without clutter, using
sets (by Robert Jones) that evoke 18th-century Paris in spare terms, and
lighting (by Adam Silverman) that captures the crisp particularity of a
Parisian sunrise with perfection.
As for singers, “Chénier” has a
large number of small solo roles (which Covent Garden casts indifferently)
but is otherwise a three-hander for the members of that love triangle. The
villain Gérard is the most interesting in that he turns out not to be as
villainous as you might expect: he is merely, as he says, a son of the
Revolution who has become its slave. Self-awareness brings remorse; and the
great monologue that steers his change of heart was probably the most
compelling aspect of Tuesday’s performance, sung by the Serbian baritone
Zeljko Lucic with dry but impactful substance.
By comparison, there
isn’t much dimension or complexity in Maddalena; and Eva-Maria Westbroek — a
Covent Garden favorite, destined always to be remembered as the
opportunistic heroine of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s “Anna Nicole” — brought
warmth and sympathy to the part, though not much vocal allure.
ultimately it’s the title role that has to carry the piece. “Andrea Chénier”
is very much a vehicle for a star tenor with some weight to the voice beside
the mandatory top notes: a voice-type known as lirico spinto, combining
“lyricism” with the ability to “push.” That the tenor at the 1896 premiere,
Giuseppe Borgatti, went on to become the leading Italian Wagner-singer of
his day explains much.
And that Jonas Kaufmann is a tenor who
encompasses Italian and Wagnerian repertoire commends him as the right man
for the job.
In many ways he is: on Tuesday night, his firm, darkly
defined tone and sophisticated eloquence were wonderful. But it was lean,
without the fleshy fullness or high-lying ping of a true Latin voice. And it
was far too tasteful, robbed of the emotionally crucifying sobs and tears
that are the guilty pleasures of late 19th-century Italian repertoire. This
was verismo-lite: refined, attractive, sleek, but not what you could call
the true experience.
Andrea Chénier. Directed by David McVicar.
Conducted by Antonio Pappano. Royal Opera House, London. Through Feb. 6.