Opera News, April 2017
Jeffrey A. Leipsic
Giordano: Andrea Chenier, Bayerische Staatsoper, 18. März 2017
Andrea Chénier
IT SEEMS UNLIKELY, but Philip Stölzl’s new production of Giordano’s Andrea Chénier marked the opera’s first performances at Bavarian State Opera. To its enormous credit, the company gathered the big-league talent capable of giving this warhorse its due. At the performance on March 18, the third in the production’s run in the Nationaltheater, the audience’s palpable appreciation of the superb singing created a very special atmosphere, turning my mind back to performances of more than half a century ago at the Met, when New York audiences were thrilled by Tucker, Corelli and Bergonzi in the title role and Milanov or Tebaldi as Maddalena.

Munich’s Chénier, Jonas Kaufmann, not only looks the role but he is one of the few tenors today who can sing it with abandon. His “Improvviso” raised the roof, his love duet in Act II was intensely passionate and his “Si fui soldato” should have won him a pardon. “Come un bel dì” was full of poetry. Although the tenor seemed to be tiring as the fourth act neared its conclusion, he spared neither his resources nor his commitment. Kaufmann’s is not one of those voices that is produced without effort; his attempts to move from piano to forte were not always successful and he tended to sound better when singing at full throttle. But there is currently no tenor better than Kaufmann at combining voice with sheer virility. Soprano Anja Harteros, now at the peak of her career is Kaufmann’s perfect on-stage partner; her deeply felt, overwhelmingly musical performance got straight to the heart of the doomed Maddalena di Coigny. “La mamma morta,” was produced with consummate evenness until her soprano soared to conquer the aria’s final B-natural—a note that gives most sopranos fits. As Carlo Gérard, baritone Luca Salsi had just the right snarl in his sonorous, well-focused voice for his opening monologue and exactly the right romantic timbre to bring off “Nemico della patria.”

All of the other roles were cast from strength. American mezzo J’Nai Bridges looked and sounded astoundingly good as Bersi. Veteran Doris Soffel was in fine voice as a rather mean and nasty Countess di Coigny and veteran Elena Zilio nearly stole the show with her ardent singing of the blind Madelon.

Director Philip Stölzl, who shared credit for the set designs with Heike Vollmer, devised a setting made up of many small rooms, creating a panoptic view of Parisian society both before and during the Revolution. We saw servants beneath the ground level in Act I, we saw houses of prostitution in rooms above army recruiting centers—we saw everything and anything. But all of the rooms in this remarkably mobile and malleable construction had low ceilings that created difficult acoustic situations for the singers and blocked direct visual communication between the conductor and the stage. Conductor Omer Meir Wellber was not always at one with his singers, and his splendid orchestra was occasionally too loud.

Director Stölzl showed a sure hand for juxtaposing intimate interpersonal relationships with the larger-than-life brutality and pageantry of the French Revolution, although the torture of Chénier in a downstairs room at the same time that Gérard was singing his marvelous “Nemico” was to distracting, and some of the minor characters were overdrawn—as in the clown-faced, half-crazed Mathieu of Tim Kuypers. The costumes by Anke Winkler were stunning and exactly in the proper time frame. The audience rewarded the singers with loud, prolonged and very deserved ovations.

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