A Compelling Production of Andrea Chénier and the Audience Cheered Long and Hard

21/03/2017

Giordano, Andrea Chénier: Soloists, Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Omer Meir Wellber, (conductor), Nationaltheater, Munich, 18.3.2017. (MC)

Andrea Chenier, Kaufmann & Harteros, photo courtesy Bayerische Staatsoper

Andrea Chénier – Anja Harteros (Maddelena) & Jonas Kaufmann (Chénier)
(c) Bayerische Staatsoper

Cast:

Andrea Chénier – Jonas Kaufmann
Carlo Gérard – Luca Salsi
Maddalena de Coigny – Anja Harteros
Bersi – J’Nai Bridges
Gräfin von Coigny – Doris Soffel
Madelon – Elena Zilio
Roucher – Andrea Borghini
Pierre Fléville – Krešimir Stražanac
Fouqier-Tinville – Christian Rieger
Mathieu – Tim Kuypers
Der Abate – Ulrich Reß
Incroyable – Kevin Conners
Haushofmeister/Schmidt – Anatoli Sivko
Dumas – Kristof Klorek

Production:

Stage director – Philipp Stölzl
Assistant director – Philipp M. Krenn
Sets – Philipp Stölzl, Heike Vollmer
Costumes – Anke Winckler
Lighting – Michael Bauer
Dramaturgie – Benedikt Stampfli
Chorus director – Stellario Fagone

Italian composer Umberto Giordano’s four act opera Andrea Chénier was first performed at La Scala, Milan in 1896. Most surprisingly its Nationaltheater, Munich première was as recently as a week ago with this Philipp Stölzl production starring Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros and tonight was its third performance. Sung in Italian there were German surtitles but sadly none in English which is disappointing for a major international opera house.

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. 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 categorised as an Italian verismo opera. 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.

Andrea Chénier is a fast moving opera but Giordano and Illica scarcely had the opportunity to develop greater characterisation of the main protagonists although stage director Philipp Stölzl and his creative team did their level best to bring the work to life. By comparison the 2015 staging by the Royal Opera House, London  directed by David McVicar also with Jonas Kaufmann in the title role and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Maddalena worked even more successfully and can be seen on the Warner Classics DVD/Blu-ray (review here).

The period setting by designers Philipp Stölzl and Heike Vollmer, vibrantly colourful and scrupulously detailed, provided a convincing snapshot of some aspects of the French Revolution. Constructed on mainly three levels the set represented a kind of upstairs/downstairs view of life during the revolution. I suspect this production, which was being filmed, may prompt some audience members to investigate this fascinating yet dark period of history further.

In Act I the set of Château Coigny in 1789 was generally in the period style of ill-fated monarch Louis XVI. We could see a cut-away section of the Château with the ill-fated aristocratic family’s elegant rooms including the ball-room in the two upstairs levels and the dingy servant quarters in the basement. Act II took place in 1794 during the so-called Reign of Terror. France had been in the midst of revolution for five years and the King and Queen had been guillotined. Dominated by Robespierre’s Jacobin party the government enforced show-trials and undertook mass executions. The disconcerting setting was the area around Café Hottot, Paris shown as a brothel a dingy gathering place for drinkers, prostitutes and revolutionaries alike. We saw the downfall of Bersi, the Mulatto maid to Maddalena, who has been reduced to prostitution. Act III was the set of the Hall of the Revolutionary Tribunal with the austere greyness of the building contrasted by the bold colours of numerous tricolour flags. In the final act there were the dingy cells of Prison Saint-Lazare where Chénier was held in chains, however, the set was totally dominated by the huge guillotine in the courtyard above. Costume designer Anke Winckler made the costumes true to the period providing much impressive detail.

Under the excellent music direction of Omer Meir Wellber the cast seemed impeccably prepared especially the three principal characters. Decked out in light brown suede frockcoat and trousers Jonas Kaufmann played the poet Chénier with an intensity and concentration that increased as the action progressed. Was Chénier’s attraction to Maddalena love or merely lust, and was it noble to go along with her plan to die with him? Although starting off rather tentatively at around 70% vocal power Kaufmann’s voice gradually revealed itself in fine condition, characteristically warmly expressive and compellingly projected. A highlight was in his Act II aria ‘Credi al destino’ proclaiming his own destiny, where although pushing hard he remained in control. However, at the end I felt I knew no more about Chénier than I did at the start; which was probably down to Giordano and Illica. Anja Harteros as Maddalena de Coigny attired mainly in a white dress did come across as fresh and girl-like and gave a convincing performance. Harteros’s voice is a most substantial instrument and she sang quite wonderfully as demonstrated by her Act III 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 Harteros were simply stunning in their final duet ‘Vicino a Te’! Singing with a wealth of passion that death will unite them forever. The image of the guillotine in the background certainly 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 seemed driven by an innate sense of justice, qualities which the compelling Luca Salsi took in his stride. There are more stentorian voices around than Salsi but very few can communicate as much emotional impact. A highpoint from Act III was his aria ‘Nemico della Patria’ with Gérard torn by his feelings as he revealed his dissatisfaction with the revolutionary regime.

J’Nai Bridges as the ladies-maid Bersi turned prostitute made a lot of the relatively small role. Singing with significant heft over the raucous music in ‘Temer Perché?’ the mezzo-soprano confidently proclaimed she had nothing to fear from revolutionary spies. As Madelon, the old blind woman, Elena Zilio delivered ‘Son la vecchia Madelon’ with real pathos as she asked Gérard to take her grandson for the revolutionary cause. A fine actress Doris Soffel played Gräfin von Coigny who seemed to relish hitting a poor servant girl with the end of her cane. Under the tutelage of chorus director Stellario Fagone the Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper were in fine voice. The assured baton of Omer Meir Wellber ensured the Bayerisches Staatsorchester played with gripping excellence and argued the best possible case for Giordano’s music. Wellber was wise to leave sufficient time for the applause after each aria of which there was plenty. Captivating from start to finish Giordano’s flawed masterpiece Andrea Chénier was presented in a compelling production under stage director Philipp Stölzl and the audience cheered long and hard.

Michael Cookson

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