Wednesday, 21 January 2015

In defence of the tenor

Andrea Chénier (Royal Opera, Pappano cond. Orchestra of the Royal Opera House)

Kaufmann may not need defending, but Andrea Chénier is far from canonical. Last night, the first ROH production in three decades opened. Docteur Guillotine himself could not have imagined a device capable of a more powerful blow than Kaufmann and Westbroek's erotic love death (yes again at the ROH a couple are getting off by (almost) topping themselves). With dawn comes death, misery & satisfaction, as lovers, hand-in-hand head off to scaffold. From the start, it seems like a happy ending is unimaginable: it is revolutionary France and the hungry children scrounging in the salon (nobody says let them eat cake, but they might as well) do not bode well. As Robespierre arrives on the scene, a frayed red cloth comes down, followed by a slightly forlorn tricoloeur displaying his autograph and more text - probably a death warrant given how many of the Committee for Public Safety authorised - to chilling effect. Then comes a "trial" (if you have seen 'Danton', you know the drill here).Then prison. Then death.

The contemporary resonances of the themes must make it tempting to update it. But this staging plays it pretty straight and is an unabashed delight. The costumes too are superb. The aristocratic salon replete with handsome young poet, becomes revolutionary cafe with handsome young poet under observation, becomes tribunal with handsome young poet on trial; and in, prison holding handsome young poet awaiting execution. and ; a good solidity works well too / I feel almost as if I have been to revolutionary Paris.

Candlelight illuminates, from the glint of chandeliers on rococo gilt work, to the glow on the table at the cafe from offstage whence came the newspaper sellers, to the workman-like candle of a busy 'courtroom', finally giving way to dawn, as the last crack of light snuck through the keyhole of the cells, and this too then was extinguished. This was the Age of Enlightenment; indeed the Enlightenment's dreadful conclusion, for Romanticism would follow sharply against Robespierre's excesses and Napoleon's. Once the thirst for blood was awoken the thing could hardly be stopped, and the French were probably all left pretty traumatised. We didn't see priests stuck in boats and sunk here (for a start very difficult to stage & also not in the plot) but we got a sense of the crazed atmosphere. The shadows cast through two large windows at night were impossible in act 4; but perhaps I miss some smart point here about Robespierre's fatal purity as one historian had it.

The casting: well Kaufmann is one of the greatest singers going & his colleagues were a pretty good match for him. Westbroek was on fine form again, but a rather different heroine than Anna Nicole. Eddie Wade (previously seen in Traviata for Glyndebourne Festival and Tour, and Opera North’s Fanciulla) had a small part but was on great form. An embarrassment of riches. But then this is what the Royal Opera does- gets in the big names and makes a splash with them. On this occasion the dividends were immense.

The music is lovely if not all that memorable. Pappano overcomes the limitaitons of the score and makes for an evening's beautiful music. There are big numbers, and with Kaufmann and Westbroek, every last drop of juice is squeezed out of them. ‘Mamma morta’, one of Callas's favourites was deeply moving, as was the closing duet. A tear or two came to my eyes in these deeply emotional, dramatic moments.

At the very least the cinema relay on 29th January is worth catching.

Overall: a fine start to the operatic year. And another name off the 'must hear' list.

Full cast:
Conductor: Antonio Pappano
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Andrea Chénier: Jonas Kaufmann
Maddalena de Coigny: Eva-Maria Westbroek
Carlo Gérard: Željko Lučić
Bersi: Denyce Graves
Madelon: Elena Zilio
Contessa de Coigny: Rosalind Plowright
Roucher: Roland Wood
Pietro Fléville: Peter Coleman-Wright
Fouquier-Tinville: Eddie Wade
Mathieu: Adrian Clarke
The Incredibile: Carlo Bosi
Abbé: Peter Hoare
Schmidt: Jeremy White
Major Domo: John Cunningham
Dumas:  Yuriy Yurchuk
Royal Opera Chorus
Director    David McVicar

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