Enkhbat and Radvanovsky transcend criticism in Pappano’s Covent Garden ‘farewell’ Andrea Chénier

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Giordano, Andrea Chénier: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House London / Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor). Performance of 5.6.2024 broadcast as live (directed by Peter Jones) from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, to the Cineworld Basildon, Essex, 11.6.2024. (JPr)

Carlo Gérard (Amartuvshin Enkhbat) and Andrea Chénier (Jonas Kaufmann) © Marc Brenner

It was farewell then to Sir Antonio Pappano as Music Director of The Royal Opera though not of course to the newly styled Royal Ballet & Opera because he will return in a year’s time (May) for Barrie Kosky’s new Die Walkϋre. During the supposedly live broadcast there were plenty of tributes to Pappano and the lack of overwhelming acclamation from orchestra and audience after the interval, nor any onstage acknowledgment of the end of an era lasting 22 years, was explained by the fact that this performance was filmed earlier (5 June) and was not the last of the run taking place on this very night.

The following from Jonas Kaufmann, Sondra Radvanovsky and Vasko Vassiliev (Pappano’s longtime concertmaster) is a mere sample of all the kind words we heard –

Kaufmann: ‘Tony Pappano has never stopped his eagerness for perfection, and he actually loves the singers. That’s what makes work with him not work at all, it’s just enjoying making music.

Radvanovsky: ‘You want to be 150% in every rehearsal with Maestro Pappano, you want to be prepared, you want to be vocally prepared. He has shown me things in this role – which I’ve already done twice – that I’ve never realised before. Musically, technically, character-wise he is 100% committed to every opera that he does.’

Vassiliev: The orchestra [of the Royal Opera House] used to be like an old Bentley which sometimes breaks down but now it’s like a brand-new Ferrari.’

Much is made of Andrea Chénier being a one-hit wonder as Giordano never really bettered it and has been almost forgotten as a composer despite having written 14 operas including Fedora which still retains a little popularity. I first saw it in 1984 with José Carreras partnering Rosalind Plowright as the lovers Chénier and Maddalena followed by Plácido Domingo and Anna Tomowa-Sintow in 1985 and then David McVicar’s production when first put on in 2015 (with Kaufmann as Chénier) and then revived in 2019 (with Radvanovsky as Maddalena).

Despite a plethora of fairly insignificant roles this is essentially a typically operatic three-hander (C is infatuated with B but she loves A) and previously Carlo Gérard – the ‘villain’ of the piece, sort of – was Bernd Weikl, Giorgio Zancanaro, Željko Lučić and Dmitri Platanias. Forty years on from my first Andrea Chénier it is even clearer that Giordano was no Puccini whose Tosca was first performed four years after the premiere of Andrea Chénier. Why is that significant? Well both operas had the same librettist, Luigi Illica, but he wouldn’t be responsible for how much the music of Tosca ‘owes’ to Andrea Chénier.

In its more memorable moments in Acts III and IV Gérard becomes a kinder Scarpia, Maddalena has her heartfelt ‘La mamma morta’ which will reappear as ‘Vissi d’arte’ in Tosca, and similarly, Chénier’s reflective ‘Come un bel dì di maggio’ will become ‘E lucevan le stelle’. In Puccini’s opera there is the final, rousing, soprano-tenor duet as Cavaradossi prepares for his (supposedly) mock-execution and the lovers get ready to flee Rome: Giordano on the other hand has them bravely awaiting the guillotine. I am not suggesting that Puccini is the Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber of the late-nineteenth century but why is this sort of ‘borrowing’ not discussed more? Also, both plots reference the French Revolution with Andrea Chénier set against France’s bloody ‘Reign of Terror’ and Tosca in Italy but with Napoleon’s post-Revolution French army in the background to what we see. Obviously, Puccini saw his contemporary’s popular verismo success and thought ‘I can do that … but only better!’

The front cloth for David McVicar’s Andrea Chénier has the words (in the original French) ‘Even Plato banned poets from his Republic’ penned by Robespierre on the death warrant of the real-life eponymous poet condemned to the guillotine in 1794 for his criticism of France’s post-Revolutionary government. Giordano’s 1896 romantic opera gives him a love interest, Maddalena, and the rival for her affections, Gérard, who rises from being a servant to a leader of the Revolution. I’ll repeat what I wrote in an earlier review and how Andrea Chénier is a long, hoary, old melodrama; an emotional roller coaster involving love, liberty and the pursuit of happiness through revolution … with just a sprinkling of memorable arias, duets and choruses.

As McVicar hinted – in a discussion with Pappano – the futility of the Revolution in Andrea Chénier has a certain modern relevance with all the current terrible events in the world in the cause of freedom. However, his production does little more than treat Andrea Chénier as a museum piece – McVicar was so pleased to say everything we see on stage is eighteenth-century – so there is nothing to make the audience dwell on all the very sad events in the news (and I do not mean the general election).

I cannot remember how I reacted to Andrea Chénier when I first saw it, but the first two acts played without an interval remain rather endless. Mentioning Puccini again, he was able to reveal more of any significant backstory in a few lines than Giordano does in any one act. With over-elaborate costumes throughout the opera from Jenny Tiramani, it all begins with servants getting ready for a ball taking place in a glitteringly gilded period ballroom complete with crystal chandeliers at the palace of the Countess of Coigny, well-sung, but given a typically intense performance by my Maddalena from 1984, Rosalind Plowright, returning to the role of the Countess once again as in 2015 and 2019. What a voice Amartuvshin Enkhbat revealed as Carlo Gérard: it is the richest and darkest baritone imaginable, yet with a mellifluous legato. Although Enkhbat talked in a pre-recorded interview about the emotions of the role, his physical performance was rather impassive – though he seemed more animated during his curtain call – whilst everything, and more, his character was going through was simply expressed through his wonderful singing.

Gérard is a footman and is indignant at the sight of his aged father, worn down by long years working for the nobles. Only the daughter of the Countess, Maddalena, escapes his scorn, since he is devoted to her. There is an extravagant party, a pastoral ballet – which could be cut with nothing overall lost – and a gavotte before peasants gatecrash the party. Here and in the rest of the opera these peasants are not nearly revolting enough: the crowd scenes often leave a lot to be desired and much is relegated to the rear of the stage with the Revolution – which is already undermined by Giordano’s love story – mostly ignored by McVicar. Edward Seckerson in The Spectator once wrote that this Andrea Chénier is like ‘the Carry On film Don’t Lose Your Head without the jokes’ – and I wish I had come up with that first!

Maddalena di Coigny (Sondra Radvanovsky) © Marc Brenner

It is believed the singers capable of handling the leading roles are rare these days but – mentioning Puccini again – it only needs a Scarpia, a Tosca and a Calaf. This revival definitely gets the first two … plus a Siegmund or Parsifal. Jonas Kaufmann is not the singer he was though his vocal travails of recent years appear behind him; the problem is that Kaufmann has never been the true tenore spinto a role like Chénier demands. Spinto may translate as ‘pushed’ and Kaufmann was pushing his voice, not in a good way, and while he reached all the top notes in the score it was all rather effortful, and his phrasing was choppy. Of course, he still looks the part and often that is what matters most these days, cutting a suitably romantic figure before Madame Guillotine’s unkindest cut of all! Perhaps he was saving himself, but Kaufmann was at his best during the concluding heartrending duet ‘Vicino a te s’acquita’ when he matched Radvanovsky note for note.

Enkhbat’s Carlo Gérard and Radvanovsky’s Maddalena transcended criticism and the latter’s account of ‘La mamma morta’ was a wonderful showcase for the remarkable colours, smooth timbre and tone and lovely roundness to her voice. Radvanovsky’s singing throughout this Andrea Chénier was a masterclass.

The smaller roles were well cast and sung: notably Katia Ledoux’s spirited Bersi, Maddalena’s servant; Alexander Kravets’s conniving Spoletta-like spy, The Incredibile; and an incredibly emotional vignette from – another returnee – the 83-years-young Elena Zilio (still in remarkable voice) as the blind Madelon who gives up her grandson to be a soldier of the French Revolution. The Royal Opera Chorus were their usual committed selves and Antonio Pappano stirred his orchestra up for those stupendously ardent and impassioned final few minutes as Chénier and Maddalena fearlessly prepare for death. He also provided plenty of blood-and-guts elsewhere in his account with an orchestra which indeed purred like a Ferrari!

Jim Pritchard

Director – Sir David McVicar
Revival Director – Thomas Guthrie
Set designer – Robert Jones
Costume designer – Jenny Tiramani
Lighting designer – Adam Silverman
Choreography and Movement – Andrew George
Revival Choreographer (Act I) – Agurtzane Arrien
Chorus director – William Spaulding

Carlo Gérard – Amartuvshin Enkhbat
Major-Domo – Simon Thorpe
An Old Gardener – Richard Holliday
Maddalena di Coigny – Sondra Radvanovsky
Bersi – Katia Ledoux
Contessa di Coigny – Rosalind Plowright
Pietro Fléville – William Dazeley
Andrea Chénier – Jonas Kaufmann
The Abbé – Aled Hall
Mathieu – James Cleverton
Orazio Coclite – Michael Kenneth Stewart
The Incredibile – Alexander Kravets
Roucher – Ashley Riches
Maximilien Robespierre – Andrew Hobday
Madelon – Elena Zilio
Madelon’s Grandson – Markel Stewart-Arrien
Fouquier-Tinville – Eddie Wade
Dumas – Jamie Woollard
Gravier de Vergennes – Richard Holliday
Laval-Montmorency – Irene Hardy
Schmidt – Jeremy White
Idia Legrey – Judith Georgi

1 thought on “Enkhbat and Radvanovsky transcend criticism in Pappano’s Covent Garden ‘farewell’ <i>Andrea Chénier</i>”

  1. Sorry for the author of the text!!!
    He obviously missed the one and only interpretation of Andrea Chénier in Munich 2017. ROH production is only a Hollywood-Fairy Tale; nothing about revolution and suffering.
    Please buy the BSO DVD and you will see, what is the main thing about Andrea Chénier.
    The tenor by far has not to be a trumpet (!!!), but a well-educated and noble person, someone like Jonas Kaufmann…

    S&H replies: The suggestion is, I believe, that Munich 2017 is the Kaufmann Andrea Chénier which sets the (modern) standard and maybe that is true but that is now seven years ago and much has happened to his voice since. I don’t know if you have seen this recent ROH broadcast and though I would not describe Kaufmann’s voice as ‘a trumpet’ it has lost the sheen of earlier in his career and I am not the only one to notice all the effort he needs to reach the highest notes. Of course he still looks like ‘a well-educated and noble person’!


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