Jonas Kaufmann’s First Andrea Chénier in London
On January 20 The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden mounted its first new production in 30 years of Giordano’s opera Andrea Chénier. The reason for the opera’s reappearance was Jonas Kaufmann’s initial performance of the title role. Right thinking critics turn up their noses at Chénier – actually they come close to regurgitating when they think about the work. Wrong thinking observers, like me, really enjoy the opera when it’s cast with first rate singers in the three principal roles. Of these three, the tenor role ( Chénier) is the hardest to cast and the hardest to realize. In the 1950s the Met could alternate Mario Del Monaco and Richard Tucker in the title role along with Zinka Milanov and Leonard Warren, a casting that has not been equaled in the ensuing 60 years. Since 1921 the Met has performed this opera 185 times. Worldwide, Operbase lists Chénier at 115 by frequency of performance. So it’s a standard repertory piece. Without a great tenor, however, there’s little reason to produce it.
Set during the French revolution the opera abounds in good tunes, flashy onstage action, and brilliant show piece arias and duets. Artistically, it’s just as good as the more popular Cavalleria Rusticana. It’s also just as retrograde in its sound as Mascagni’s opera. Both could have been written by Ponchielli who taught Mascagni and died before either of the aforementioned operas were composed. Stylistically, Puccini was miles ahead of all his Italian contemporaries.
Regardless, of its artistic merits (or lack thereof), Chénier when well cast offers an exciting evening in the theater. Soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek and baritone Zeljko Lucic were able accomplices to Kaufmann’s star turn as Chénier. He gave a passionate reading of the doomed poet. His only problem is that his dark toned voice doesn’t have the steely squillo needed for the role, although I can’t think of anyone active today who could sing the role better than he did.
There are four tenor arias in Chénier. This is the one from the second act – Allora partirò. Kaufmann provides all the passion and voice you could want. Also in the second act is a short duet with Maddalena in which the two declare undying love for each other as tenors and sopranos are want to do. This number is a warm-up for boffo duet that ends the opera – Ora soave, sublime ora d’amore. Note the crescendo that Kaufmann takes to start the piece. It’s an unusual effect; it almost sounds like a siren. Eva-Maria Westbroek has a rich and secure voice; it’s just not Italianate.
The Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic is an Italian style baritone. His voice, though he sometime tends to bellow, is the right type for the servant turned revolutionary official, Carlo Gerard. His rendition of Nemico della Patria was refulgent and powerful. Gerard needs a full fledged Verdi baritone and Lucic clearly is one.
The soprano’s big aria is La mamma morta. Westbroek singing here shows both her strengths and weaknesses. As was said of Churchill’s early oratory, her cannon are big, but not mobile. She has beauty of sound and plenty of volume, but her vocal line does not flow the way an Italian soprano’s should. Still a fine performance.
Chénier’s third act Si, fui soldato is another impassioned outburst. Kaufmann belts it out with abandon. It’s an example of the full out singing required from the tenor in this opera. Giuseppe Borgatti (1871-1950) who created the role of Chénier went on to become Italy’s foremost Wagnerian tenor. Any tenor who is not a fully developed spinto assumes the role at his vocal peril.
The last act of the opera starts with the most lyrical of Chénier’s four arias. Chénier reads his last poem to his friend Roucher in his prison cell shortly before he goes to the guillotine. The scene is reminiscent of the last act of Tosca. Come un bel dì di maggio.
The opera ends with a vocal firestorm as Chénier and Maddalena, who has taken the place of a condemned noblewoman, march to death with unison high Cs. With the right voices this duet can drive an audience to a frenzy. The opera’s last phrase sums up the duet’s sense: “Viva la morte insiem” (Long live death together).
The conductor was Antonio Pappano. He led the Royal Opera House Orchestra with blazing energy. There was no condescension to Giordano’s supposedly inferior score. A rousing performance of an opera that still sells out (with right cast) 120 years after its first performance.