Out with the ancien

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Review of Umberto Giordano is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://www.jpehs.co.uk/out-with-the-ancien/.

Review of Umberto Giordano, Andrea Chénier, Royal Opera House, published in Times Literary Supplement (30 January 2015), 18.

Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier was premiered within a few weeks of Puccini’s La Bohème in 1896, and in some ways it is a more interesting opera. The quality of Giordano’s melodic and harmonic invention is unexceptional, and audiences will be disappointed if they expect a lyric gift as great as Puccini’s – or even Mascagni’s. Nevertheless, his dramatic control is secure; his vocal writing convincingly naturalistic; and his imaginative exploration of the narrative setting is arguably far richer than that of his better-known contemporaries. A director could set La Bohème in any time or place without much unsettling its dramatic parameters. All that the plot requires as backdrop is a café and a tavern, a street corner, and a flat with rickety central heating. (It cannot be set in a country with a national health-care system, however, since in that case Mimì would survive.) But to dislodge Andrea Chénier from its specific French Revolutionary setting would be to hinder the achievement of a vital dramatic purpose. For, although Giordano’s response to this history is a familiar one – the Revolution was a failure, betraying its original calls for liberty – it is addressed as a theme, not just thrown in because an opera must have a setting. The work therefore inhabits its historical moment in a more fulfilling way than, say, Madama Butterfly, and this makes the opera, despite its limitations, a more substantial utterance than the customary tale of a tragic love triangle.

The ancien régime is deftly drawn in Act One, Giordano’s tautly cadenced operatic numbers capturing its outward appearance: poised but undynamic. Antonio Pappano’s conducting allows the numbers to be felt as such but without breaking the musico-dramatic flow, and the orchestral playing – especially in the many delightful passages of chamber-like scoring in the opera – suggests a greater familiarity with the work than can realistically be the case (this is the first Royal Opera House production since 1985). David McVicar’s new staging,too, responds sympathetically to Giordano’s aesthetic. This is an ingenuously “period” production, with lavish sets and costumes. Pastel-liveried servants flutter elegantly, lighting chandeliers and perfecting the alignment of chairs; aristocrats curl nostrils and blether; and the cast dance suavely to the pretty pastiche gavotte which – surviving the incursion of a small mob – ends Act One. McVicar’s direction is rightly understated: exaggeration is unnecessary when the unpleasant class relations on stage are so extreme. The narrative motion from 1789 to 1794 is suggested by an increase in revolutionary graffiti and banners, while the drop curtain portends the final tragedy, bearing as it does the text of the historical André Chénier’s death warrant, signed by Robespierre and blotched with blood. In the opera, Chénier’s indictment is written (and later unsuccessfully retracted) by Gérard, a rival for Chénier’s lover, Maddalena. In the final act Maddalena substitutes herself for another prisoner so that she and Chénier can be guillotined together.

When the poet Chénier is introduced to the idling company, the Countess (an immaculately snooty performance by Rosalind Plowright, singing with her usual urbanity) floats past him to seize the Abbé. His court gossip is much more interesting than the trifles of art. The audience, expectant at the entry of the star tenor, chuckled as Jonas Kaufmann moved off to wait phlegmatically in a corner. An extemporized poem (“Un dì all’azzurro spazio”) is eventually coaxed out of him, and Kaufmann makes the most of an aria whose short-breathed syntax frustrates his efflorescences of lyricism. Acts Two to Four offer him more generous moments of passion, and he is particularly impressive in his two big duets with Maddalena (Eva-Maria Westbroek). His unexpected, thrilling and boldly elongated transition from a thin, reedy pianissimo to a characteristically dark mezzo forte, on what Giordano simply writes as an unobtrusive, upbeat quaver A-flat on the words “Ora soave, sublime ora d’amore” in the middle of the Act Two duet, is the kind of magical touch that makes this tenor so highly valued (a sweet, sublime moment of love indeed).

Westbroek, equally superb, renders Maddalena’s moving narrative of the suffering between her mother’s death and Chénier’s declaration of love (“La mamma morta”) in the rich, dark hues that she brings to more substantially plaintive roles such as Sieglinde. This aria was a favourite of Maria Callas’s, but her Milan recording of 1955 – harsh at mid-range and with a characteristic wild tremolo at the climax – displays nothing of the coloristic range that Westbroek’s opulent, mellifluous, and utterly secure voice brings here. There is also a strong and dramatically compelling on-stage chemistry between her and Kaufmann.

Perhaps the opera’s most interesting character is one of the first to sing, Gérard. He begins in service but striving for revolutionary change and ends in disillusionment with the revolution, branded a traitor for defending Chénier, and frustrated in love. This is a fully drawn and sympathetic figure, far from the cipher Scarpia in Tosca, whose plot function is broadly similar. It is impossible to imagine Scarpia having the self-awareness to sing, as Gérard does,that he trembles and weeps as he kills for the Revolution. The role is given a masterful performance by the bass Željko Lučić, who more than holds his own in this formidably talented cast. Andrea Chénier is not a great opera, but it is certainly more interesting than several of the repertory limpets in major opera houses.