Sunday 25 January 2015

Kaufmann as Andrea Chenier

Act one of Andrea Chenier at Royal Opera House -  © ROH. Bill Cooper 2015
Act one of Andrea Chenier at Royal Opera House -  © ROH. Bill Cooper 2015
Giordano Andrea Chenier; Kaufmann, Westbroek, Lucic, dir: David McVicar, cond: Antonio Pappano; Royal Opera House
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 23 2015
Star rating: 4.0

Superbly done, but you wished for something musically meatier or a production with a bit of edge

We caught up with Covent Garden's much anticipated production of Giordano's Andrea Chenier at the Royal Opera House on Friday 23 January 2015. David McVicar's new production (the first at Covent Garden for 30 years, and yes I did see that one too), was designed by Robert Jones (sets) and Jenny Tiramani (costumes) with lighting by Adam Silverman and movement by Andrew George. Jonas Kaufmann was Andrea Chenier, Eva-Maria Westbroek was Maddalena, Zeljko Lucic was Carlo Gerard, with a large cast including Denyce Graves, Rosalind Plowright, Peter Coleman-Wright, Peter Hoare, Carlo Bosi, Roland Wood, Elena Zilio, and dancers Sarah O'Connell and Roger Molist. Antonio Pappano conducted the Royal Opera House Orchestra.

Jonas Kaufmann in Andrea Chenier at Royal Opera House -  © ROH. Bill Cooper 2015
Jonas Kaufmann in Andrea Chenier at Royal Opera House - 
© ROH. Bill Cooper 2015
Giordano's opera was premiered 1896 (Puccini's La Boheme premiered in 1896, and Tosca in 1900). The opera applies the verismo principals of strong passions with a plot based in reality, dealing with ordinary people, to an historical subject. The librettist Luigi Illica (who also worked on Puccini's librettos in collaboration with Giuseppe Giacosa) included a lot of historical detail into his text and Giordano seems to have responded to this. The opera is full of a wealth of background, almost too much so. Giordano gives us 23 named characters; so many that sometimes you wonder who on earth this person is. Giordano does not seem to have worried and simply concentrated on ensuring that the three principals stand out in high relief. The title role is given no dramatic development, instead we get a series of brilliant poet outbursts (one in each act) some based on the original poet's writings.

You feel that if Puccini had been writing the opera, he would have insisted on changes and focussed in greater detail on salient moments. If you consider Tosca, we learn almost nothing of the background in Scarpia's Rome it is left to suggestion. Whereas Giordano has filled his opera with picaresque, Massenet-like detail without quite Massenet's gift for bringing his characters into the foreground and developing them.

This was an extremely handsome production with a very strong cast. Robert Jones's large scale set was flexible and attractive, creating a series of substantial interior and exterior settings which were beautifully lit by Adam Silverman. David McVicar seems to have decided to take the opera at complete face value, so that Jenny Tiramani's costumes were a welter of colourful period detail. Too much so in fact, and this combined with McVicar's handling of the ensemble moments in the middle two acts, tended to make you wonder whether we had wandered into a production of the musical Les Miserables! Frankly, I wanted a little more edge to the work. The moment in Act one when the peasantry bursts into the Contessa di Coigny's soiree just wasn't threatening enough, and during the post-Revolution acts we just did not feel that the crowd, with its mass of colourful characters, was at all liable to turn violent at any moment.

Once you had got over the feeling that you rather wished you were seeing him in a rather greater work, Jonas Kaufmann was superb in the title role. He stalked about the stage looking every inch the lean and hungry poet. The improvviso in Act one was superbly done, with Kaufmann's familiar dark, baritonal and highly sculpted line suiting the music and the character perfectly. He did not have the open Italianate sound that Carreras and Domingo brought to the role, but he added a superbly intelligent shaping of the music and a superb, dark intensity. He really did smoulder.

Rosalind Plowright, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Denyce Graves in  Andrea Chenier at Royal Opera House -  © ROH. Bill Cooper 2015
Rosalind Plowright, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Denyce Graves in Andrea Chenier at Royal Opera House
© ROH. Bill Cooper 2015
Giordano does not give the soprano heroine much with which to work. Eva-Maria Westbroek did her best to be girlish in Act one. Act two gave her no emotional progression, she had to appear towards the end and launch into a passionate love duet with Kaufmann's Andrea Chenier. This was suitably ardent, but it was only in Act three, when Maddalena describes her sufferings and the death of her mother in La mamma morta that Westbroek got something really meaty and she did not disappoint. Here her sense of drama and feeling for the intensity of the music more than made up for her voice's essential lack of Italianita. The ending was magical, with the two voices joining in the ultimate operatic duet as the go off to their deaths on a tumbril. David McVicar and his team here created a superbly complementary stage picture (though, unlike Michael Hampe in the previous production, McVicar does not actually have his leading lady and man go off singing in the tumbril).

The Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic was an accomplished Carlo Gerard. He is a constant presence in the plot, but only in act three does he get a major operatic solo. Lucic impressed with the way he developed Giordano's little hints and fragments into a real sense of character, and then launch himself with brilliant drama and superb musicality on the major solo.

Jonas Kaufmann and Zeljko Kucic in Andrea Chenier at Royal Opera House -  © ROH. Bill Cooper 2015
Jonas Kaufmann & Zeljko Kucic
in Andrea Chenier at Royal Opera House
© ROH. Bill Cooper 2015
All the remaining roles are essentially cameos, sometimes relatively short ones. The Royal Opera House had put together a superb cast. Rosalind Plowright (who sang Maddalena in the production 30 years ago) was a characterful Contessa di Coigny, her hairdo adding a strong sense of caricature. Denyce Graves was a firmly flexible Bersi, giving us a nicely sexy hint of her Carmen in her portrayal of Bersi as merveilleuse in act two but then, alas, we never see Bersi again. Adrian Clarke was Mathieu the sans culotte who gets a number of solo character moments, and Clarke made these tell. We did remember who he was. Similarly Caro Bosi made his appearances as the Incredible tell. Perhaps the most satisfying solo moment is from Madelon, the old woman in act three who offers her final remaining grandson to the revolution. Elena Zilio did not disappoint here. A small mention must go to the dancers Sarah O'Connell and Roger Molist who were the main attraction at the Contessa's soiree. Jeremy White was bluff yet touching as the jailer Schmidt in the last act.

Other characters adding to the general ensemble were John Cunningham's Major Domo, Basil Patton as Carlo Gerard's father and as Gravier de Vergennes, Peter Coleman-Wright as Pietro Fleville, Peter Hoare as the Abbe, Michael Kenneth Stewart as Orazio Coclite, Ed Lyness as Madelon's grandson, Yuri Yurchuk as Dumas, Irene Hardy as Laval-Montmorency, and Judith Georgi as Idia Legray

The Royal Opera House orchestra was on good form under Antonio Pappano, but I did rather think that he gave them their head too much and the balance with the stage was not ideal. There is a lot of orchestral detail in Italian opera of this period, particularly associated with the young composers of the verismo school, and this requires carefully balancing in a modern orchestra, otherwise the conversational sections get covered.

The tickets for this production were some of the most expensive offered by the Royal Opera House for a new production. Whilst Jonas Kaufmann's performance was certainly worth it, and he was very much primus inter pares in a production which was very much an ensemble one, I kept coming back to the wish that we could have had something a bit meatier.

I think that the production will work well on the screen, you will be able to see Kaufmann's Andrea Chenier in greater detail and his was a performance which would bear close scrutiny. Covent Garden is broadcasting the January 29, 2015 performance in cinemas so it will be well worth catching, check their website for details.

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