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Giordano,  Andrea Chenier: Orchestra and Chorus Gran Teatre del Liceu de Barcelona, Conductor: Pinchas Steinberg. Gran Teatre del Liceu de Barcelona,   29 and 30. 9.2007 (JMI)

Production from The New National Theatre Foundation-Tokyo.

Director: Philippe Arlaud.
Stage & Lights: Philippe Arlaud.
Costumes: Andrea Uhmann.


Andrea Chenier: José Cura/ Fabio Armiliato.

Maddalena di Coigny: Deborah Voigt/Daniela Dessì.

Carlo Gerard: Carlos Álvarez/Anthony Michaels-Moore.

Bersi: Marina Rodríguez-Cusí.

Madelon: Irina Mishura.

Contessa di Coigny: Viorica Cortez.

Roucher: Miguel Ángel Zapater.

L’Incridibile: Francisco Vas.

Mathieu: Philip Cutlip.

Abate: José Ruiz.

Fleville/Tinville: Enric Serra.

The Liceu has decided to open the new opera season with one of the most difficult works to cast nowadays. Andrea Chenier is an opera particularly loved by aficionados in search of important voices, while at the same time it is underestimated by many musicologists. Of all Giordano’s operas, only Andrea Chenier and to a certain extent Fedora,  remain in the regular repertoire, but the former enjoys better health, since almost all important tenors, sopranos or baritones  decide to sing it at some time in their careers   How many other operas have 58 different recordings on CD or no less than 7 versions on DVD? The big problem with Andrea Chenier is that you need three great spinto voices which are genuine rarities these days, as we all know. Even so, the Liceu is offering two spectacular casts for this production which is particularly praiseworthy, despite the fact that the final results were varied,  going from considerable disappointment to great success in less than 24 hours.

The production comes from Tokyo and is directed by Philippe Arlaud, whose work for Bayreuth’s Tannhäuser was widely reported  this summer. If Arlaud's work in Wagner is aesthetically attractive but short on pure stage direction, then something similar happens here, with an end result of lack of life on stage and some monotony. Both the stage sets and lighting are also Arlaud’s, and  he offers us a revolving stage  consisting mostly  of leaning panels that neither help the drama or nor facilitate  vocal projection, coupled with many scene changes.  Costumes are Old Regime  (it's difficult to change the time frame for this opera)  and invariably in white, coloured only with some tricolour flags and a few red coats, as is  the case for  Maddalena in the second act. Arlaud uses the guillotine as the main conduit for  drama, ending each act with the death-machine's sonorous sound , as if it were the final scene of Dialogues des Carmelites. The second act starts with projections of the execution device, which seems also to be the favourite toy of the children who attend   Andrea Chenier's trial. The biggest problem with Arlaud's production though is the lack of action on stage and there is very little acting direction at all. The crowd scenes don’t offer anything of interest, showing only recreations of famous pictures at the end of the different acts. It's certainly a modern production but is seriously short on interest.


Hearing Pinchas Steinberg as the conductor of an Italian opera was a surprise, because we are used to enjoying him in  Wagner and Richard Strauss, repertoire in which he is one of the leaders. In the two days - with different casts - he offered two wholly different readings and one can only guess at the reasons for why this was so. The first day was distinctly routine work, mostly concerned with  keeping everything together and showing a huge lack of the passion so needed in this opera. On the second night, things were much better and Steinberg was along way further ahead of mere maintenance. Why the huge contrasts? It is not easy to explain completely explanation, but it seems that the debut of Deborah Voigt as Maddalena - after having cancelled the premiere - had created  a lot of  insecurity and nerves both on stage and in the  pit. Leaving the theater on the 29th, local opera lovers told me to wait 24 hours before judging Mr. Steinberg, because this had been a very strange night.  I confess that they were right:  the orchestra was not on the top form that we usually  expect from them though the chorus showed all of  its customary quality  under the leadership of José Luis Basso.

The Chenier in the first cast was the Argentinean José Cura, whose performance was uneven and not of  much interest at all.  His  frankly boring interpretation had little sign of the impassioned poet and his  “Improvisso” was short on projection. While he improved in the arioso “Credo a una possanza arcana”,  he again fell  flat in the big duet with Maddalena and was superficial in “Sì, fui soldato”. He began singing “Come un bel dì di Maggio” with taste and delicacy  but very soon fell back into  routine and superficiality. The final duet did not improve much either,  even dodging one high note.

In the second cast (better called the alternative cast, since the tickets were the same price) Fabio Armiliato, - who has  less of a name and charisma than Jose Cura - ,  was the better interpreter by a long way. The inequality between his vocal registers is well known but few can be compared to him in this character. Far better in the Improvisso than his colleague, more  exciting and moving in the trial, he sang  “Come un bel dì di maggio” ,with great taste and was  bright an ringing in the final duet with all the notes in  the right place: altogether a very outstanding performance.

Deborah Voigt  finally made her debut as Maddalena di Coigny, after cancelling the Premiere, which spread all types of rumours regarding the reason of her non-appearance. That she has become one of the most important sopranos of the last 10/15 years is unquestionable and  after her famous gastric by-pass, it seems that  opera fans  have exchanged one  the most important sopranos for a happier woman. I am glad for her, but any similarity between the Voigt of today and that of the 90s is pure coincidence. When she returned to the Liceu in La Gioconda it was clear then that the voice was not the same as before, particularly in the upper register and sadly the situation has not improved at all. The voice has lost some of its quality, although from time to time there are sounds that recall  the great soprano of years ago. Even  her rendition of “La Mamma morta”  raised little enthusiasm from the audience.


Daniela Dessì returned to the alternative cast after her success at the premiere, when she replaced Deborah Voigt. She gave a fine  demonstration of how to sing Maddalena and  the duet “Ora soave”  was sung  to perfection with beautiful pianissimi. She was exciting and very moving in “La Mamma Morta”  was a real pleasure to listen to. This singer is now an authentic belcantista, in even  better physical and vocal condition than a couple of years ago.

Carlos Alvarez was Carlo Gerard and  had one of those nights when his voice did not run evenly and  this  is not the first time that he has been vocally below par for long periods in a production.  His singing went almost unnoticed during the first two acts but he went ob to  recover  with an outstanding interpretation of “Nemico della patria” which actually did stop the show. Being one of the very few great baritones today, one might reasonably   expect more from such an outstanding artist and while  the production didn’t help him,  I consider that one can expect more than one outstanding aria from an artist of his capabilities.

British baritone Anthony Michaels-Moore was a very good  Gerard in the second cast however. This singer does not enjoy much popularity among opera lovers in Spain, although to me he is a good choice for in the bigger repertoire. The voice sounded strong and was very  well projected  -  better than expected in the first half of the opera but perhaps without the  same quality  in “Nemico della Patria”.

La mulata Bersi was Marina Rodriguez-Cusí, wholly  adequate  although  with a particularly tightness at the top of the voice. Irina Mishura was a luxury as Madelón, considering that this role  is usually  given to older names. Vocally, she was slightly below expectations and I wonder whether she can sustain  the bigger Verdian roles. Viorica Cortez was the Countess of Coigny, anold lady performing as such and  from Francisco Vas gave a good performance as The Incredible   and the other veteran, Enric Serra, is best considered as part of the building these days, otherwise it is difficult to understand why he still sings at the Liceu.


On the 29th only Carlos Álvarez came close to a triumph, while Cura and Voigt got applauded, but not with the usual enthusiasm for big names in Barcelona. On the following day  however, everything changed and the audience was reluctant to  leave the theatre. Dessì and Armiliato received a well deserved triumph and Pinchas Steinberg was warmly contrasting with his reception  on the 29th  when he little beyond  cold courtesy had been his lot.

What a peculiar place is the world of opera. In twenty-four hours we had  come from mediocrity to great success. At the end, much of the progression was a question of performer confidence  as well as decent casting.


 José M. Irurzun