Umberto GIORDANO (1867 – 1948)
Andrea Chenier (1896)
Andrea Bocelli (tenor) – Andrea Chénier; Lucio Gallo (baritone) – Carlo Gérard; Violeta Urmana (soprano) – Maddalena di Coigny; Stella Grigorian (mezzo) – Bersi; Cinzia de Mola (mezzo) – La contessa di Coigny; Elena Obraztsova (mezzo) – Madelon; Roberto Accurso (bass) - Pietro Fléville; Mauro Buffoli (tenor) – L’Abate; Simone Alberghini (bass) – Roucher; Ezio Maria Tisi (bass) – Fouquier-Tinville; Il Maestro di casa; Alessandro Busi (baritone) – Mathieu; Gregory Bonfatti (tenor) – Un “Incredibile”; Gianfranco Montresor (bass) – Dumas; Schmidt
Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro di Milano Giuseppe Verdi/Marco Armiliato
rec. Auditorium di Milano, 11-22 July 2007
Italian libretto with English, German and French translations enclosed
DECCA 478 2382 [59:03 + 59:21]

The list of recordings of Andrea Chenier is impressively long, beginning during the acoustic era with Carlo Sabajno conducting La Scala forces in 1920. The best known of the singers is Adolfo Pacini as Gérard. Nine years later Lorenzo Molajoli used the same chorus and orchestra for the first electric recording with Lina Bruna Rasa and Carlo Galeffi as Maddalena and Gérard. That recording is now available on Naxos. So also is the 1941 version under Oliviero de Frabritiis with Beniamino Gigli, Maria Caniglia and Gino Bechi in the leading parts. Again La Scala hosted the recording.

The first LP recording, from the early 1950s, was a Cetra set with Renata Tebaldi as Maddalena but with a mediocre supporting cast this was more or less a non-starter. She got a second chance in 1957 when Decca issued a recording with Gianandrea Gavazzeni conducting forces from Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome. Tebaldi was partnered by Mario Del Monaco and Ettore Bastianini. This set was also issued in stereo later on. EMI came up with a competitor in 1963, set down at the Rome Opera House, conducted by Gabriele Santini and with Franco Corelli, Antonietta Stella and Mario Sereni taking the principal parts. Then there was a gap of thirteen years to the RCA recording made with the National Philharmonic in London, conducted by James Levine and with another stellar trio: Placido Domingo, Renata Scotto and Sherrill Milnes. THe National Philharmonic was employed again in 1984 when Decca recorded the first digital Chenier with Riccardo Chailly at the helm and Luciano Pavarotti, Montserrat Caballé and Leo Nucci singing the main roles. Sony released a set in 1986, recorded with the Hungarian State Opera Orchestra under Giuseppe Patané. José Carreras, Eva Marton and Giorgio Zancanaro were Chénier, Maddalena and Gérard. Finally Capriccio issued a set recorded at the Frankfurt radio with Marcello Viotti conducting with a cast headed by Franco Bonisolli, Maria Gulegina and Renato Bruson. Besides these there are, or have been, some live recordings and there are also a couple of DVDs with Placido Domingo in the title role and some years ago I reviewed a set with José Cura and Maria Guleghina on superb form (see review).

Now, the question is: how does this new Decca recording stand up against such keen competition? Recorded in 2007 (why has it taken three years to issue it?) it has the advantage of state-of-the-art recording and the sound is truly impressive, well balanced and with a lot of orchestral detail registered. Giordano’s score lacks the subtlety of Puccini’s contemporaneous masterworks but even though this is a punchy performance Marco Armiliato manages to show up some beautiful scoring and in the midst of the rather noisy music he also strives for softer nuances. But first and foremost this is a hard-hitting opera and Armiliato urges on his admirable orchestra and chorus, never letting the tension slacken. This is a work that has to be played for all its worth or not at all. This is a performance that has the listener sitting on the edge of the chair, eager to hear the next turn of the proceedings.

Besides the three main characters this opera requires a large number of secondary characters and many of them have quite demanding tasks to fulfil. The results are variable. La Contessa di Coigny is wobbly, and former superstar Elena Obraztsova is an over-dramatic Madelon and her vibrato – always rather generous – has now widened further. But Stella Grigorian is a splendid Bersi: beautiful tone, glittering delivery and with a lot of power when needed. Gregory Bonfatti sings and acts un ‘incredibile’ with real ‘face’ and superb enunciation and Alessandro Busi is a powerful and intense Mathieu.

Lucio Gallo has been much in demand in all the great opera houses for quite some time and his is a strong but not very subtle baritone, giving considerable thrill in the dramatic climaxes but he tends to force and under pressure the tone sometimes becomes unsteady. Nemico della patria is formidable in its intensity and he also manages to find some nuances in this testing aria. Compared to Sherrill Milnes (RCA) and Ettore Bastianini (Decca) he has to be ranked in a lower division when it comes to beauty of tone and vocal line.

Violeta Urmana has a long and varied discography and Maddalena has become one of her signature roles. She certainly has the spinto quality and the expressiveness needed for the role. She hasn’t quite the grandezza and sumptuousness of Tebaldi (but who has?), she is occasionally over-vibrant but she is deeply involved and there is a vulnerability in her reading that Tebaldi lacks. La mamma morta is sung with a feeling that makes it hard not to be moved by.

When it comes to Andrea Bocelli I immediately had my doubts concerning his suitability for so heavy a role. Having already reviewed his Werther, where he was surprisingly successful, and the verismo twins Cav and Pag, two roles that far over-stretched his capacities, I couldn’t imagine that his basically lyric voice could ride the orchestra in this often thickly scored work. In a recording studio this is possible to some extent through manipulating the balance and Bocelli is never drowned by the orchestra as he probably would have been in a live performance but the outcome is still unsatisfactory.

There is no denying his musicality and he quite often phrases well and softens the tone in lyrical passages. There is also a great deal of passion and feeling, especially in the third act, where he excels in some attractive legato singing in Si fu soldato. Better still is the last act Come un bel di di maggio, one of the few lyrical moments in the whole opera. Here he is noble and sensitive, possibly the best thing I have heard from him. But where he is ruled out is in the actual tone, which is monochrome and quite often strained at the top. One has the feeling that a size M singer is trying to fill out a size XL T-shirt. Why not offer him L’Elisir d’amore next time instead of Tosca or Turandot or any other heavy-weighter?

Any recording of Andrea Chenier without a first-class titular hero is ruled out in the keen competition. Del Monaco, glorious but unsubtle, Corelli, Domingo, Pavarotti, Bonisolli and on DVD Cura are all far preferable, and since the supporting casts are of comparable excellence none of those sets are likely to disappoint.

Bocelli’s admirers will want the present set anyway but for me Levine (RCA) with Domingo, Scotto and Milnes is still the top recommendation, while I also feel very strongly for Gavazzeni and was quite overwhelmed by the DVD with Cura.

Göran Forsling

There are several far more preferable sets