Seen and Heard International, 01/06/2024
by Colin Clarke
Giordano: Andrea Chenier, London, Royal Opera House, ab 30. Mai 2024
Pappano’s soloists, chorus and orchestra unite in a terrific performance of Andrea Chénier
Sir Antonio Pappano bids his farewell as Covent Garden’s music director with his terrific performance of Umberto Giordano’s verismo classic Andrea Chénier (though of course he will be back for Die Walküre next season.) The orchestra, already a world-class ensemble, truly outdid themselves on this particular evening. Detail was magnificent (which itself counterbalances any tendency towards indulgence). Brass were imposing; woodwind sprightly; string silken, even in the upper registers of the violins.

This is an opera that deserves more outings than it actually gets. A concert performance by Chelsea Opera Group in May 2022 was my last experience of Giordano’s magnificent score. It benefits from a traditional staging, such as this one from David McVicar (Mario Martone’s Scala production, captured on DVD/Blu-ray from La Scala, satisfies for the same reason). McVicar’s production of Giordano’s ‘Dramma di ambiente storico’ – was first seen (and premiered in London) in 2015, again with Jonas Kaufmann in the title role. My colleague Jim Pritchard reviewed the 2019 revival (for his review click here). The production’s attention to detail (superb costumes from Jenny Tiramani) and its perfectly placed set (Robert Jones), seen across the acts, conspire to provide the perfect setting.

Giordano’s opera is set in the French Revolution where the terrors under Maximilian Robespierre sent shockwaves across Europe. Andrea Chénier is loosely based on fact. It does share tropes with Puccini’s Tosca (imprisonment, a bullying Scarpia-like Carlo Gérard and his confrontation with the leading lady, here Maddelena di Coigny. Girodano’s score evokes both worlds of the Ancien régime and the Revolution with incredible skill, something emphasised by Pappano’s handling of the orchestra.

This might be verismo, but Giordano is capable of subtlety and tenderness (arguably, more so than Puccini). It was the variegated nature of the score, from huge choral scenes (the Royal Opera Chorus, as so often in perfect, lusty form) to soul-breaking tenderness and, indeed, heartbreak that was the impression left at the end.

Placing the opera so squarely in its time enabled complete immersion in Giordano and Luigi Illica’s drama. Spectacle is an important part here, and it needs voices to mach. The clear star of the evening – in a cast of stars – was Amartuvshin Enkhbat’s Carlo Gérard, who actually is the first voice we hear. His voice is a kind of golden velvet, commanding but never strained, and he has the stage presence to match. He replaces the originally intended Carlo of Carlos Álvarez, but it is impossible to imagine a finer assumption. The third act ‘Nemico della patria’ was the clear highlight of the evening (greeted with an enormous and prolonged ovation, richly deserved), a powerhouse of emotion completely supported by Pappano and his musicians. Another stand-out was the Bersi of Katia Ledoux, all revolutionary fervour: Ledoux previously impressed as Paola in Offenbach’s La princesse de Trébizonde in a concert performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and this was her Royal Opera debut and I very much hope to see and hear her again.

But what of the two leads? Jonas Kaufmann was Chénier, not completely in full voice in the first act, perhaps saving himself for the vocal glories he delivered later in the opera. In the second act there was almost a juxtaposition of Kaufmann in full voice against a repeated ascent that each time felt weak. He does inhabit the role dramatically, though, and for all of Chénier’s interactions with his Maddalena, it was his scenes with the character Roucher that stood out. That role was taken by Ashley Riches, not a singer I associate with verismo but how powerful this was. The times Riches has proved himself previously are too numerous to mention, but this seemed to add another dimension to his activities. Both Riches and Kaufmann were completely absorbed in the dialogues.

And the Maddalena, Sondra Radvanovsky? This was, I believe, the finest I have heard her. Her third act ‘La mamma morta’ (supported by some superb string playing from the pit) was intensely memorable, shot through with believable emotion (the resulting ovation was, again, just). Radvanovsky and Kaufmann made for a powerful couple in the final act, rapturously preparing to be together in death (‘Vicino a te s’acqueta’); worth noting, perhaps, the orchestra was absolutely aglow at this point.

I note that in his review of the 2019 performance, Jim Pritchard references Rosalind Plowright’s Maddalena in 1984. In 2019, as here, she sang the Countess di Coigny. She owned the stage, a full confidence assumption, treasurable and impressive. Of the remaining smaller roles, one has to mention Aled Hall’s immensely characterful Abbé and Alexander Karavets’s strong Incroyable (Incredible). William Dazeley impressed as Pietro Fléville, and who could ever forget veteran Elena Zilo’s phenomenally gripping old lady Madelon? – a whole world of experience compacted into a short, but golden, transfixing nugget of time.

Even the programme booklet gets a thumbs up: a superb elucidation of the action, historical notes explaining the various terms (‘sans-culottes’, ‘Incroyables’, ‘Merveilleuses’, and so on) and, among other articles, a riveting overview of The French Revolution by William Doyle.

As an exit strategy after 22 years at the helm of The Royal Opera, Pappano’s choice of opera cannot be faulted. This was at once the orchestra and chorus paying tribute by giving their all, and Pappano’s own tribute to a great score. Unforgettable.

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