Bachtrack, 31. Mai 2024
David Karlin
Giordano: Andrea Chenier, London, Royal Opera House, ab 30. Mai 2024
Costume drama at its finest: Andrea Chénier at The Royal Opera
Period costume drama is out of favour with most opera directors these days, which makes it something of a guilty pleasure to come to Sir David McVicar’s staging of Andrea Chénier, with its meticulous attention to historical detail and the Ancien Régime opulence of Robert Jones’ sets and Jenny Tiramani’s costumes for Act 1. But Umberto Giordano’s opera is far more than a pretty costume piece, and there was no mistaking the sense of occasion in the air, this being Sir Antonio Pappano's last run of performances here as Music Director of The Royal Opera.

Everyone involved, it seemed, wanted to bring their A game to proceedings. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House sounded fabulous, from sumptuously silken strings to a rounded, imposing brass sound that I haven’t heard from them since Pappano last conducted Wagner here. Pappano seemed born to conduct Giordano’s music, perfectly judging its myriad colours and its ebb and flow of intensity. If he occasionally gave his players their head a little too much for them to allow the singers to be heard, it was hard to complain on such an occasion as this.

The acting was uniformly excellent and brought home both the desperation of the poverty that preceded the French Revolution and the overwhelming sense of paranoia and disillusionment at the time of The Terror. Many individual lesser roles made important contributions: Rosalind Plowright’s impossibly over-entitled Countess, Alexander Kravets’ disturbingly cynical “Incredible” (the spy set by Gérard to entrap Maddalena and Chénier), Elena Zilio’s extraordinary cameo as Madelon, the grandmother who offers her grandson to the army (at 83 years old, Zilio can still blast it out to the top row of the amphitheatre and dissolve to the most controlled pianissimo). Katia Ledoux made a highly promising Covent Garden debut as Maddalena’s confidante Bersi. She has a very attractive, dark mezzo voice and I’ll be hoping to hear more of her in bigger roles.

Jonas Kaufmann lacks the sense of effortless power that characterised the peak of his career. But most of the qualities that made him into the world’s top operatic draw are still in good working order: the burnished timbre, the control over messa di voce, the clarity of text and, above all, his ability to make the words mean something. “Si, fui soldato”, Chénier’s response to the charges against him at his show trial in Act 3, was blistering. Even when he was “off the ball”, pacing around the ballroom in Act 1, or scribbling his thoughts in Act 2, you could see how fully he was committed to his character. As Maddalena, Sondra Radvanovsky had a mixed evening vocally, at her best powering through the drama of the Act 2 confrontation with Gérard, unimpressive as the younger Maddalena in Act 1 with a lot of vibrato and uncertain high pianissimi.

As Gérard, Amartuvshin Enkhbat trumped them both, for the sheer power and timbre of the voice and his ability to stand up and grip the audience’s attention. His “Nemico della patria” was the highlight of the evening, a totally credible portrayal of a man trapped by his own passions who has come to hate himself.

Andrea Chénier has never been considered one of the world’s greatest operas. The near-rape scene in Act 2 has something of the scene between Tosca and Scarpia, but Giordano lacked Puccini’s gift for tugging at the heartstrings. The ending, as Maddalena joins Chénier to face the guillotine together, has something of Norma and Pollione, but Giordano couldn’t write anything that approaches Bellini in bel canto beauty. But when performed as it was last night in a staging that is unashamedly straight period drama, this is an opera that can make you believe in every action taken by every one of its characters, infused with a sense of the turbulent times in which it is set, enhanced by the richness of late romantic music. That’s a pretty hard combination to beat, and Pappano will rightly feel that his music directorship is ending on a high.

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