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Umberto GIORDANO (1867-1948)
Andrea Chénier, opera in four acts (1896) [113.16]
Libretto by Luigi Illica – Sung in Italian
Andrea Chénier – Jonas Kaufmann
Maddalena di Coigny – Eva-Maria Westbroek
Carlo Gérard– Željko Lučić
Bersi – Denyce Graves
Contessa de Coigny – Rosalind Plowright
Roucher – Roland Wood
Incredibile – Carlo Bosi
Madelon – Elena Zilio
Royal Opera Chorus
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Sir Antonio Pappano
Director – David McVicar
rec. live 29 January 2015 Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London
Picture: 1080i/16.9
Sound: LPCM Stereo, dts-HD Master Audio 5.1
Regions: All
Subtitles: Italian, English, German, French, Spanish
Extra Features:
i) Introduction to Andrea Chenier [6.24]
ii) Bringing the French Revolution to Life:
Designing Andrea Chenier [3.31]
iii) Vocal master class with Antonio Pappano [4.33]
WARNER CLASSICS Blu-ray 9029593779 [137 mins]

Italian composer Umberto Giordano’s four act opera Andrea Chenier was first given at La Scala, Milan in 1896. For his libretto to Andrea Chénier, Luigi Illica was motivated by the life of the Romantic poet André Chénier (1762-1794), who was guillotined during the French Revolution a few days before Robespierre suffered the same fate. Coming thirty years after Chénier was last staged at the ROH in 1985, this new David McVicar production at the Royal Opera House was premièred on 20 January 2015. A few days later the production was relayed live to cinemas worldwide, presented by Richard E. Grant. It’s a co-production between The Royal Opera, The China National Centre for Performing Arts, Beijing and San Francisco Opera.

Giordano had written a couple of operas with only modest success and the disillusioned composer stated that Chénier would be his last bite at the cherry. Today Giordano is remembered almost exclusively for Chénier, though his next opera, Fedora, written a couple of years later, is encountered occasionally. Chénier is classed as an Italian verismo opera and its setting in revolutionary Paris featuring the aristocratic de Coigny family at its Château seems a million miles away from the stifling rural village atmosphere of the better known examples of the verismo post-Romantic operatic tradition, namely Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci both set around the time they were written in the late-ninetieth century.

At this point a brief summary of Chénier might prove useful. It is 1879 and, ensconced in the aristocratic bubble of Château Coigny, the Countess di Coigny and her family seem blind to the severe danger they are in from the revolutionary uprising sweeping through France. Carlo Gérard, servant to the Countess, is in love with the noblewoman’s daughter Maddalena. During preparations for a ball at the Château, Gérard can take no more of his servitude and tears off his livery. The poet Andrea Chénier is a guest at the ball and falls in love with Maddalena. To the jealousy of Gérard, who has become a revolutionary official, Chénier has offered to protect Maddalena whose family has lost everything in the revolution. Gérard has Chénier arrested and denounces him, although he later regrets this. Chénier is sent to Prison Saint-Lazare awaiting execution. Maddalena pleads for Chénier’s life and Gérard’s endeavours are too late in trying to help Chénier. Maddalena is assisted by Gérard to see Chénier in prison and manages to swap places with a condemned noblewoman. The lovers Maddalena and Chénier are taken out to be guillotined together.

Chénier is a fast moving opera, but Giordano and Illica scarcely had the opportunity to develop greater characterisation of the main protagonists. This shows despite the sterling efforts of stage director David McVicar, who brings the story to life remarkably successfully. The period set by designer Robert Jones provides an impressive snapshot of some aspects of the French Revolution, vibrantly colourful and scrupulously detailed, which I suspect may prompt some viewers to investigate this period of history further. In Act One the set of the Winter garden of Château Coigny in 1789 is generally in the period style of ill-fated monarch Louis XVI. Act Two takes place in 1794 during the so-called Reign of Terror. France has been in the midst of revolution for five years and the King and Queen have been guillotined. Dominated by Robespierre’s Jacobin party the government has enforced show-trials and has undertaken mass executions. The setting is the Café Hottot, Paris, a dingy gathering place for drinkers, prostitutes and revolutionaries alike and Act Three is set in the austere greyness of the Hall of the Revolutionary Tribunal. The final act is the rather anodyne set of the courtyard of Prison Saint-Lazare where, through steel bars, the street outside can be seen. As shown in the bonus video footage, McVicar’s brief to costume designer Jenny Tiramani, a specialist in historical dress, was to make the costumes as true to the period as possible, including the relevance and intense importance of the chosen colours, an assignment with which she succeeds splendidly, providing astonishing detail.

Under the thorough musical direction of Sir Antonio Pappano the cast are impeccably prepared, especially the three main characters. Jonas Kaufmann plays Chénier with considerable intensity and concentration yet he exudes a curious detachment, a lack of spark, which prevented me being entirely convinced by the relationship between the poet and Maddalena. Don’t be surprised if at the end you feel you know no more about Chénier than you did at the start; this is probably down to Giordano and Illica. Is Chénier’s attraction to Maddalena love or merely lust, and was it noble to go along with her plan to die with him? Kaufmann’s voice is in superb condition, expressive and compellingly projected in his arias, especially that from Act Two Credo a una possanza arcana, where he proclaims his own destiny. Kaufmann, although pushing hard, remains in control.

Eva-Maria Westbroek is probably twenty-five years older than the age of love-struck Maddalena di Coigny and certainly not girl-like, yet after a while it doesn’t seem to matter, such is the strength of her performance. Her voice is a substantial instrument which she manages capably, as demonstrated by her Act Three showpiece aria La mamma morta, delivered with genuine meaning, telling Carlo Gérard how her mother died protecting her. In the dramatic highpoint of the opera, Kaufmann and Westbroek excel in their final duet Vicino a Te! They sing superbly, with a wealth of passion, that death will unite them forever. An image of a guillotine in the background would have provided a disturbing impact. Carlo Gérard, the servant turned revolutionary official, must be a satisfying part for a baritone. Tough and resilient on the outside whilst warm hearted and emotional on the inside, Gérard seems driven by an innate sense of justice, qualities which Željko Lučić takes convincingly in his stride. There are more stentorian voices around than Lučić but few that can convey as much feeling. In his Act Three aria, Nemico della Patria, Gérard, torn by his feelings, reveals his dissatisfaction with the revolutionary regime.

Denyce Graves as the lady’s maid Bersi makes a lot of the relatively small role. Singing with significant heft over the raucous music in Temer Perché?, the mezzo-soprano confidently proclaims she has nothing to fear from revolutionary spies. Madelon the old blind woman sings Son la vecchia Madelon with real pathos asking Gérard to take her grandson for the revolutionary cause. Chenier’s friend Roucher, played by Roland Wood, stands up well, demonstrating his fine baritone and Carlo Bosi as Incredibile, with the straggly red hair, makes a suitably creepy revolutionary spy. Under the tutelage of director Renato Balsadonna, the Royal Opera Chorus sound in superb voice, with bite when needed and as usual act remarkably well. The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House under the baton of Pappano provides a bold and often brashly colourful sound. In addition Pappano is wise to leave sufficient time for the applause after each aria.

Filmed live during performance, the video direction by Jonathan Haswell is satisfying with just the right balance of camera close-ups. Pappano was shown in the pit although an odd shot or two of the orchestral players during the performance and the audience from the stage at the conclusion might have added to the sense of involvement. The High Definition quality image is vividly colourful and well focused, complemented by the choice of stereo and surround sound. The fourteen and a half minutes of extra content provided on this Blu-ray is fascinating and wonderfully informative, undoubtedly adding to my enjoyment of the production. In the accompanying booklet there is an excellent essay by George Hall and a synopsis, but on the downside there is no track listing provided.

Captivating from start to finish, Giordano’s flawed masterpiece Andrea Chenier is presented in a sterling production under director David McVicar.

Michael Cookson

 




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