United Kingdom Umberto Giordano, Andrea Chénier: Soloists, chorus and orchestra of Opera North / Oliver von Dohnányi, conductor. Leeds Grand Theatre, Leeds 19.01.2016. (JL)
Andrea Chénier: Rafael Rojas
Carlo Gérard: Robert Hayward
Maddalena de Coigny: Annemarie Kremer
Bersi: Anna Dennis
Contessa di Coigny/ Madelon: Fiona Kimm
Roucher: Phillip Rhodes
L’Abate/ an ‘Incroyable’: Daniel Norman
Mathieu: Jeremy Peaker
Schmidt: Ross McInroy
Dumas: Garrick Forbes
Pietro Fléville: Dean Robinson
Fouquier-Tinville: Dean Robinson
Conductor: Oliver von Dohnányi
Director: Annabel Arden
Set and Costume Designer: Joanna Parker
Lighting Designer: Peter Mumford
Video Designer: Dick Straker
Sound Designer: Pete Malkin
Movement Director: Tim Claydon
Andrea Chénier hangs on in the repertoire by the skin of its teeth. To the average opera-goer who has not seen it before it may sound like sub Puccini. That would be unfair. Given a strong ensemble effort topped with stars who can deliver the essential combination of dramatic and vocal power, this French revolutionary melodrama can really take off. The recent revival by New York’s Metropolitan Opera fell depressingly flat owing, by all accounts, to the insipidity of the lead singers.
Not so London’s Royal Opera production that ran through 2014. Recognising perhaps that there is little point in mounting the opera without a stellar cast, the company had the sense and good fortune to engage in the lead tenor role the most luminous body in the operatic cosmos, Jonas Kaufmann, who, more terrestrially, happens to be the heart throb of the moment. If I were a woman I imagine I might, like Maddalena, be prepared to go to the guillotine for him. That was the Royal Opera’s first Andrea Chénier for thirty years and it was a resounding success, showing in cinemas and television throughout the world with a DVD to follow. A typical critical sentiment was that it was difficult to imagine it being bettered.
Opera North’s production, its first ever, inevitably invites comparison. I can report that it most certainly was not found wanting on the singing front. Starting there, where it matters, the pairing of Rafeal Rojas and Annemarie Kremer delivered high octane emotional and vocal punch. Mexican Rojas in the title role may look a trifle on the old side for the part but his macho, passionately voiced, stage-commanding rendering could convince audiences that a besotted woman might, literally, lose her head for him. Giordano writes most of the music for this major tenor role in the upper part of the middle voice which is normally the strongest so he clearly wants a big sound when called for. One of the most famous interpreters of the role was Mario del Monaco in the mid C20th who had a reputation for being the loudest tenor in the world. Rafeal Rojas is a tenor for whom the role might well have been written. Not only has he a big sound but when required to soar up into the head register, which he frequently is, he crosses over not only seamlessly but hits the top notes with ease, security and thrill. This was just as well because there are no less than four major occasions that require vertiginous scaling of heights to climactic vocal peaks.
Annemarie Kremer has behind her two of opera’s most demanding soprano roles: Norma and Salome, both well received, so she was not likely to struggle with that of Maddalena. Meeting vocal demands is one thing but delivering a performance that moves is another. She is a consummate all-round acting opera singer and she took us convincingly from innocent, privileged aristocrat through a fall from grace to poverty, anxiety over the possibility of arrest, sense of loss from family bereavement as well as separation from a lover who is sentenced to death and ends up finding a form of redemption by choosing to die with him. Vocally she showed, particularly in her third act aria “Mama morte”, that she can convey emotion with nuance, subtlety and lyricism as well as power. When called upon to soar to the top of the range she made a perfect match for Rafael Rojas.
The third character in the love triangle is perhaps drawn in more depth by Giordano than any of the other characters. Gérard is a servant in an aristocratic mansion who suffers from anger. He is angry with unrequited love for the out-of reach daughter of the house, Maddalena, and angry at his masters’ disregard for the plight of the poverty stricken people. Later on, having turned revolutionary, he suffers agony over the conflict of his principles, his love for Maddalena and whether to be instrumental in saving her lover from the guillotine. In the role was Robert Hayward, a veteran baritone with a pleasing voice who, in his first act angry soliloquy was in danger of being drowned out by Giordano’s fulsomely angry orchestration. Not so there onward. When he suffers his conflicts of interest in the third act, Hayward really came into his own and delivered a performance of moving strength in one of the opera’s more successful dramatic high points. As often in opera, love overrides principle.
It would be invidious to pick out any of the singers in the other roles which are more than just cameos. All were performed in a way that both pointed to their own special character and their interaction with others. This highlighted great ensemble strength which is one of Opera North’s recurring achievements.
As for the production generally (Annabel Arden) and set in particular (Joanna Parker), there was an impression that a need to keep costs down may have been a driving force. The sets can play a major role in understanding the essential public issues that are the backdrop to the drama. For example, at the beginning, when Gérard rails against the aristocracy and longs for the destruction of the ancien regime he does so, according to stage directions, in the midst of an opulent Chateau that is inhabited by people in extravagant dress who are shortly to witness an expensive entertainment. What Opera North gave us was an austere, abstract set consisting of three walls of silvery grey chain mail material. In the middle were two hanging panels and a staircase. The aristocrats were dressed in costumes that strongly alluded to the correct period but did not look extravagant enough apart from that worn by the Contessa di Coigny, leader of the household. There was some reference to modern fashion that lent a degree of time and place ambiguity. When Gérard ends his rant he symbolically tears off his livery which in this case was a coat made of the same chain mail material as the walls.
The middle two acts had variations on the same set but in the final prison scene I thought it came into its own. The three bare walls returned but without a stick of furniture anywhere. In a striking image Chenier sat on the floor in the middle, his isolation complete in this bare, grim setting. The effectiveness of the approach is a matter of opinion but it was an imaginative and often slick solution to budgetary constraint.
The opera has had its critics, the two main possible flaws being angularities in the plotting and periods of musical treading water between the notable climactic moments. Bearing the latter in mind it is essential to keep things moving and in this Oliver von Dohnányi, directing in the pit, was splendid. The orchestra responded with considerable pace, dynamic range and clarity in an often complex score.
Andrea Chénier obeys the standard formula for most serious operas since the invention of the form in the early C17th: an intimate love story, often triangular, set against big public events. In Italy the emphasis was much more on singing than elsewhere and in this Giordano gave his public what they wanted. This was where the strength of Opera North’s production lay, nowhere more so than at the end. Prior to being led off in the tumbrel to be guillotined, Chénier and Maddalena sing a long love duet, often locked together in Puccini-style octaves, that contains multiple climaxes: A flat, then up to B flat and finally Maddalena lets rip a top B. Rojas and Kremer were a distinguished double act that ended the performance both literally and metaphorically on a high note.
Performances continue until Feb 24 when Opera North heads for Newcastle, Nottingham and Salford. Tickets: 0844 848 2700. www.operanorth.co.uk