Giordano wrote fourteen operas but Andrea Chenier,first heard in Milan in 1896, is the only one that is regularly performed today. Giordano was one of the young composers who, alongside Puccini, Mascagni and Leoncavallo, introduced the “verismo” style to the opera houses of Europe. Andrea Chenier is set during the terror of the French Revolution and tells the story of Chenier, the revolutionary poet, his aristocratic lover, Maddalena, and Carlo Gerard, a former servant who has flourished as a committed supporter of Robespierre. It is a love triangle set against the political turmoil of a revolution that begins with noble ideals but descends into a bloodbath. At its best, the opera combines the personal and political aspects of this story to brilliant effect.
This production, directed by David McVicar and conducted by the magnificent Antonio Pappano, does a fine job with a score which has some wonderful moments but many passages that can only be described as uninspired. It is a clear and powerful production. It tells the story with a real feel for historical accuracy and the simple set allows for an easy and effective transformation from the aristocratic party of Act 1 to the revolutionary tribunal of Act 3. The stage backdrop emphasises the remorseless puritanism that fuelled the terror – it is a bloody banner bearing Robespierre’s words “Even Plato banned poets from his republic” – and the chorus are at their best when they portray the Parisian mob.
The singing is excellent. Jonas Kaufman lives up to his billing as a world class tenor. He delivers with panache all the demanding high note entries and the role of romantic doomed poet suits his style almost too well. Eva-Maria Westbroek is a fine Maddalena, seeming a bit underpowered in the first Act but coming into her own in the triumphant duet in the final scene. But the star of the night is Serbian baritone, Zeljko Lucic, who sings the role of Carlo Gerard with power and passion. The opera really comes alive with his extraordinary monologue in Act 3 when he sings of his despair at the failure of the revolution to live up to his ideals and of his doomed love for Maddalena. The ovation he received at the end was thoroughly deserved.
Antonio Pappano is so much the master of the Covent Garden pit that it is difficult to find anything new to say about his musical magic. In this opera on a couple of occasions he perhaps allows the orchestra a little too much volume but this is a rare blip in a performance where his superb ability to pace the music so as to allow the singers full room to flourish is once again fully evident.
Though there are some wonderful moments, this is not a great opera. There is a point in the drama where the torment that Gerard feels as he considers whether he might coerce Maddalena into a sexual encounter in return for sparing Chenier’ life brings to mind the altogether more villainous Scarpia from Puccini’s Tosca. Whereas Puccini seizes the moment to create one of the great melodramatic triumphs in Italian opera, Giordano lets it slip through his fingers. All credit to Pappano and McVicar for making such a fine evening out of this flawed material.