Andrea Chenier, Royal Opera, ROH, Covent Garden, January 2015

In an entirely unexpected coincidence this new production of an opera about the 1794 French Reign of Terror had its first night less than two weeks after the terrorist attacks in Paris. I refer to the execution of journalists at Charlie Hebdo who, like the real André Chenier, transformed their pens into sharp weapons against hypocrites (Act III: ho fatto di mia penna arma feroce contra gli ipocriti).

Act I, Chenier in aristocratic surroundings, all images ROH/ Bill Cooper

Act I, Chenier in aristocratic surroundings, all images ROH/ Bill Cooper

A perfect moment then to resuscitate this opera, which has not seen a performance at Covent Garden for thirty years and is sometimes looked down on musicologically. Yet it anticipates Tosca by four years, and like Tristan und Isolde has two lovers united in death at the end. Of course you need singers with the right generosity of spirit, but the chemistry between Jonas Kaufmann and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Chenier and Maddalena certainly provided it and their duets were thrilling. Kaufmann’s nobility of tone and bearing shone through the vicissitudes of the four acts, and Ms Westbroek’s warm singing expressed the emotions and later desperation of this young woman, if occasionally lacking the splendour demanded by her awakening to rapture.

Act II after the tumbril has passed

Act II after the tumbril has passed

No such concerns about the terrific performance of Željko Lučić as servant-turned-revolutionary Carlo Gerard, who eventually (in Act III) sings of his despair at the wrong turn the Revolution has taken, and his original dreams to awaken men’s hearts, eliminate the tears of the downtrodden … transform men into gods, and in un sol bacio e abbracio tutte le genti amar! Arguably the best aria in the opera, sung with power and sensitivity. Varied singing from the rest of the large cast, with particularly notable cameos from Rosalind Plowright as a haughty Countess di Coigny and mother of Maddalena (a role she sang at Covent Garden thirty years ago), Adrian Clarke as a potent revolutionary Mathieu, and Roland Wood as a staunch Roucher.

Act III, The Court with Chenier centre

Act III, Trial with Chenier centre

David McVicar’s new staging, a co-production with Beijing and San Francisco, fully brings out the splendour of the aristocratic world of Act I, the coldness of false dawns in the revolutionary spiral that ensues, and the hysteria inherent in any totalitarian regime when State and people are terrified. I particularly liked the cleverly symmetric use of tumbrils, where at the start of Act II one passes from left to right, jeered by a crowd in the background, while at the end of Act IV it passes at dawn from right to left, picking up Chenier and Maddalena.

Act IV, the tumbril has arrived

Act IV when the tumbril arrives

McVicar has a wonderful sense of style. The set and costume designs by Robert Jones and Jenny Tiramani fully capture the milieu of the 1790s, and Adam Silverman’s lighting is superb. My only complaint is the lovely vignette in Act III where an old lady near death, whose son died at the storming of the Bastille, brings her last surviving grandson to fight and die for the revolution (può combattere e morire). Yet instead of a 14-year old boy drawn unreadily to the stage by an aged looking woman (last time I saw the opera) here was a young man and a woman looking not much older. Pity.

Yet the production is glorious and under the baton of Antonio Pappano, fresh from his recent triumph of Tristan und Isolde, Giordano’s unabashedly Italian music rang with eloquence and emotional impact, even if the orchestra did completely drown the singers at the end of Act III. And though critics can sometimes be condescending, the sincerity and visceral spontaneity of this music inevitably conquers audiences, which may explain why all cheap tickets sold out ages ago and the first night attracted numerous foreign reviewers. A revival as soon as possible is clearly needed, despite a live cinema relay on January 29, repeated on February 1, and a live BBC Radio 3 broadcast on January 31.

Performances at the ROH continue on various dates until February 6 — for details click here.


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