the guardian/The Observer, 25 January 2015
Fiona Maddocks
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.

Today 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 uphill.

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.

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