Umberto GIORDANO (1867-1948)
Andrea Chénier - historical drama in four acts (1896)
Andrea Chénier - José Cura; Maddalena di Coigny - Maria Guleghina; Carlo Gérard - Carlo Guelfi; Bersi - Giacinta Nicotra; La Contessa di Coigny - Cinzia De Mola; Madelon - Annie Vavrille; Roucher - Carlo Cigni; Il romanziero - Armando Ariostini; Fouquier-Tinville - Giuseppe Guidi; Mathieu - Mario Bellanova; Un Incredibile - Pierre Lefebvre; The Abbé - Stefano Pisani; Schmidt - Atfeh Ziyan; The major-domo - Mauro Marchetto; Dumas - Michele Castagnaro
Orchestra and Chorus of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna/Carlo Rizzi
Directed by Giancarlo del Monaco
Directed for video by Paola Langobardo
rec. live, Teatro Comunale di Bologna, 2006
Picture format: 16:9 anamorphic
Sound format: PCM stereo, DD 5.1, DTS 5.1
Region code: 0
ARTHAUS MUSIK DVD 107 287 [123:00]
Unless you’ve made a close study of the history of the French Revolution, the story of Andrea Chenier as penned by Giordano’s librettist Luigi Illica can be more than a little confusing. Although what we have here is essentially a simple love triangle, Illica’s predilection for repeatedly throwing in historical references to long forgotten personalities (Necker? Tallien? Dumouriez?), political factions (Girondins?) and social phenomena of the period (merveilleuses?) can easily distract a modern audience from the essential plot.
Thankfully, this particular production keeps everything as clear and simple as possible and it will certainly appeal to anyone who found the recently issued DVD of the Bregenz Festival’s 2011 Andrea Chénier (see here) just a little bit too off the wall.
Apart from its clarity, the biggest assets are the three leading singers. In an age when many cleverly promoted vocalists are perceived by the public as “opera stars” even though they’ve never actually performed in a full stage production, José Cura is the real thing and undeniably one of today’s most exciting operatic tenors. I was justifiably taken with his Turiddu/Canio in Arthaus Musik’s Cav and Pag double bill from a couple of years back (see here) and this is another performance in the same league. In the first Act he commands the stage from a passionately delivered Un di, all' azzuro onwards. After that neither Maddalena nor the theatre audience can resist his appeal. Later on, Cura takes full advantage of all the show-stopping opportunities that have made the opera a favourite with those tenors with the self confidence (or self regard) to take it on. Radiating immense charisma and intensity, he has a great stage presence - especially once he has discarded the Act 1 ancien regime’s sartorial fripperiesin favour of the more fetchingly heroic costumes of the Revolutionary era.
Some great tenors of the past certainly usedAndrea Chénier as a vehicle to showcase their own stardom. The stentorian Mario Del Monaco, in particular, often faces that accusation, though when he is paired with an equally powerful Maddalena such as Renata Tebaldi (they may be seen together in two DVD performances - Bel Canto Society BCS-D0003 from 1955 and VAI 4419 from six years later - and heard on Decca CD set 425 407-2) the results are undeniably spectacular.
Jose Cura is, though, a generous performer who recognises very sensibly that the presence of other strong singers on stage will serve only to enhance his own performance. Fortunately, Maria Guleghina (Maddalena) and Carlo Guelfi (Gerard) are also very skilled, both vocally and in their acting. The beauty of Guleghina’s voice is apparent from her first entrance and she lives her part most convincingly, from her coquettish teasing in the first act to her renunciation of life for the sake of love in the last: watch how, in their Act 2 duet, she pays close attention to Cura’s words and gestures and reacts utterly appropriately and convincingly.
Gerard’s character is a more complex one than Maddalena’s, buffeted as he is by a range of conflicting emotions from the very start. Carlo Guelfi, an immensely strong presence on the Bologna stage, expresses that inner complexity and tension very well and makes his character the opera’s real centrepiece. In Act 3, his self-questioning monologue is very affectingly done and the revelation of his long-suppressed feelings in his subsequent duet with Maddalena is - as it ought to be - a real dramatic highpoint, capped by the soprano’s powerful La mamma morta
Supporting roles are very well taken, too. Cinzia De Mola offers us a Countess di Coigny who would be quite enough on her own to justify the oncoming downfall of the French aristocracy. Her idea of a ball for her preening, mincing friends is not just a decorous minuet or two but a cabaret appearance by a naked god Pan dancing lasciviously with his nymphs in a sort of early version of a bunga-bunga party.
Giacinta Nicotra makes a strong impression as Maddalena’s loyal servant Bersi, as does Carlo Cigni as Chénier’s friend Roucher. I also enjoyed Pierre Lefebvre’s Uriah Heep-like portrayal of the police spy, while Annie Vavrille, singing the role of the old woman Madelon, makes a positive and powerful contribution - even if her supposedly 15 years old grandson looks here rather more like a twenty-something toy-boy.
In fact, my few quibbles focus on the contribution of Giancarlo del Monaco - the son, incidentally, of the aforementioned tenor Mario Del Monaco, even though he differentiates himself with a lower-case “d” in “del”. In this production he combines the functions of stage director, set and costume designer and, while I like the attractive and often eye-catching costumes, the set and what happens on it are, at times, a little more questionable.
The busier, more detailed sets work best. Act 1 boasts an impressive mini Hall of Mirrors in beautifully muted pastels (echoed in the costumes) and Act 3’s courtroom set, in which scaffolding for the peasant jury is set up in the midst of a palatial gilded ballroom, is equally striking. The opening of the third act, set in Gerard’s office, and the final gaol scene are both disappointingly rather sparse and impressionistically conceived.
Stage direction is generally convincing, although Act 2’s procession of revolutionary heroes (“You see the last one? Robespierre’s little brother”) is consigned so far to the rear of the stage that it’s hard to see exactly what is going on: the Bregenz production works better as the dignitaries move diagonally across an area nearer the front. Other than that, I liked the way that the crowd scenes were marshalled - even though it looks odd to my eyes to see soldiers, rather than horses, drawing the condemned prisoners’ tumbrels. Perhaps stage logistics or sheer cost precluded using real animals?
As is often the case these days, stage action occasionally conflicts with the words that we are hearing. Thus, towards the end of the first act, it seems nonsense for the countess to angrily exclaim “Who let that lot in? Out with that rabble!" when the peasant “horde” interrupting her party consists of just one man carrying in his arms the corpse of a boy. Similarly, in the opera’s final moments, we hear a gaoler summoning Chénier and Maddalena to their execution and the couple affirming their eagerness to go willingly for the sake of their mutual love. You might therefore reasonably expect to see them climbing into a (no doubt soldier-drawn) tumbrel or at least just disappearing off into the wings. But what we actually see as the curtain falls is the lovers determinedly climbing a good 10 or 12 feet vertically up the bars of their cell that are ranged across the front of the stage. If that isn’t a belated attempt at a prison break, perhaps it symbolises their ascent to heaven? It’s also an unnecessary bit of directorial affectation that left me rather bemused when I ought, rather, to have been emotionally overwhelmed, both by the emotional drama and by Giordano’s tremendously uplifting final duet (“In our death, love triumphs!”)
In that duet - and in fact all through the opera, by the way - the singers are well supported by an orchestra that plays idiomatically and to the manner-born. They are very well directed, as one would expect, by the experienced Carlo Rizzi.
The television/video directing is also generally fine, although I am surprised that no-one seemed to notice when, at about 40:13 in Act 2, a poorly chosen camera angle gives us a glimpse of an actor waiting in the wings. If we really were in Revolutionary times, the cameraman responsible would, without the slightest doubt, have been en route for the guillotine before you could even begin to say merveilleuses.
Rob Maynard
José Cura is the real thing and undeniably one of today’s most exciting operatic tenors.