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Andrea Chénier, 30 years after


Umberto Giordano: Andrea Chénier
Opening night, Tuesday, 20 January 2015, Royal Opera House of Covent Garden
Conductor: Antonio Pappano, Director: David McVicar
Set design: Robert Jones, costume designs: Jenny Tiramani, lighting design: Adam Silverman, movement: Andrew George, concert master: Peter Manning
Jonas Kaufmann (Andrea Chénier), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Maddalena de Coigny), Željko Lučić (Carlo Gérard), Denyce Graves (Bersi), Elena Zilio (Madelon), Rosalind Plowright (Contessa de Coigny), Roland Wood (Roucher), Peter Coleman-Wright (Pietro Fléville), Eddie Wade (Fouquier-Tinville), Adrian Clarke (Mathieu), Carlo Bosi (The Incredible), Peter Hoare (Abbé), Jeremy White (Schmidt), John Cunningham (Major Domo), Yuriy Yurchuk (Dumas)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Royal Opera Chorus

There speaks the real Fatherland, Whose gallant sons all perish for her now! Not here, where they are murdering her poets!

André Marie Chénier was a soldier, a diplomat, a revolutionary, but he was mainly a French poet who was beheaded during the Great Terror of the French Revolution. It was not poetry that triggered his death, but his journalism. And it was not the imprecation that killed him, but poetry, again, as the pamphlets he was writing were in verses. He was 31 years old when he died. The poetry-pamphlet is not at all far from the caricature and I find it impossible to stay away from the present of 2015, when people can die because of some drawings.

Umberto Giordano’s greatest opera is a paradox. Luigi Ilica’s libretto is impeccable as it keeps a perfect balance between the political momentum and the melodrama à la Tosca from the triangle Chénier-Maddalena-Gérard. And, nevertheless, the success of this opera has never been overwhelming, and it was due more to the voices of some artists with supernatural voices (del Monaco or Corelli). Which means that, once with the crisis of spinto-dramatic voices, Giordano’s masterpiece was less and less staged. Just an example: the Covent Garden, where it has not been sung for over 30 years, ever since Plácido Domingo’s time. And maybe this is why a classical production seems impossible to avoid, even though the temptations of modernism are immense, because the revolutions, either good or bad, are pretty much similar, the same as Lenin is similar to Robespierre or Maiakovsky to Chénier. Or to Charlie. Without any moderation.

When the curtain rose for this premiere at the Royal Opera House, I startled: everyhing seemed familar. And not similar to the classical representations of the opera, that I knew from the mythological DVDs of the past, but similar to the present of the British theatre school. The atmosphere was very similar to that in La traviata from Bucharest, directed by Paul Curran: furniture, lights, etc. The difference was to be found more the size of the budget. I will leave the rest to your imagination, until you see the HD broadcast.

A 30 year hiatus produces not only expectations, this is only the first, obvious level. Meanwhile, the world of the opera has changed a lot. Can one still sing Andrea Chénier like a human trumpet? Can the unbridled romanticism still move the audience of the XXIst century? If the production is classical (even though there are enough refinements and symbols which did not exist 30 years ago), is there any novelty possible in the way one can sing this part today? I would answer positively, and even more, I would add that the difference must exist. Between the lack of measure of del Monaco, no matter how superb he was, or the romantic idealisation of Corelli, and the use of authenticity and of history, that is practiced today, there should be an amendment, an adjustment, a softening of the great exaggerations, no matter how glorious they were.

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Jonas Kaufmann made tonight his début as the young poet devoured by the Revolution, a début expected in 2015 as a preamble for the Otello of 2017. His character was more the intellectual Chénier than the exalted poet. Because, we must admit it, in order to have newspaper articles in iambs, one needs more than a poet. Or, Kaufmann brought Chénier back to his human, but not less admirable dimensions. He gave up almost completely the slancio over-used in the great arias, and he replaced it, more often and more convincingly, with Pappano’s Puccinian manner. A Chénier closer to Rodolfo than to Cavaradossi. And an unforgettable pianissimo in act two: O soave, sublime ora d’amore! – suspended in the air, endless, that stopped the audience from breathing for a few moments.

Eva-Maria Westbroek announced a dramatic and strong Maddalena di Coigny, and so she was. But without sacrificing the innocence and the maturity she acquires through suffering. While her voice warmed up and tempered the rather steep vibrato of the first act, the soprano proved a hard to anticipate sensitivity, such as the scene of the reunion, in act two. This balance between the drama and the lyricism reached its peak in La mamma morta.

Željko Lučić, in Gérard’s complex part, proved what means a Verdian barytone. A rich and round voice, that superbly stressed the character’s generous side, but also a force, always under control, that never diminished its political dimension. A solid interpretation, an asset.

Pappano? Equal to himself. Tonight was the moment when Giordano’s verism somehow abdicated in favour of Giacomo Puccini’s intimism. And who are we to say it was not like this? The stridency of the orchestral discourse was lessened, so that the cello that accompanies La mamma morta does not seem an isolated and artificial moment, but only a logical consequence of the music heard up to that moment.

And a tricolour curtain, dripping with blood, a mixture of ideals and honour, as the death coming with the dawn.

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Photo Gallery – © ROH, 2015. Photograph by Bill Cooper:  

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