When this opera had its first performance at La Scala in 1896 the ‘verismo’ style of operatic writing was at its peak. But there is not much truth to life in this melodious melodrama beyond the fact that there was a poet-satirist of this name who was executed in the French Revolution. A quotation from Robespierre appears on one of the curtain drops: ‘Even Plato banned poets from his Republic’; but to be honest there are only occasional gestures towards a thesis that art and radical republicanism are incompatible. For most of its length we witness an elaborate parade of dramatic colour: crowd scenes, tavern revels, fights, a trial, and above all a love-triangle punctuated by spectacular arias or duets with lush orchestration intended to stop the show. This is an opera of glorious surfaces and the key to the success of McVicar’s production, first shown at Covent Garden in 2015, is that he fully accepts the piece for what it is and does not try to find hidden depths that do not exist. Far better to go for meticulous traditional realism, and celebrate it for what it is.
The librettist was Luigi Illica, Puccini’s regular collaborator, and it is no accident that the plot in many ways anticipates that of ‘Tosca’, written only four years later. Here Chénier finds himself an awkward outsider at an aristocratic soiree but makes an impression through his poetry on Maddalena, the daughter of the house and on Gérard, one of the household servants, who is inspired to abandon his lowly position and join the incipient revolution. Then later as the Revolution upturns fortunes Gérard finds himself with the power of life and death over the other two and he arranges for Chénier to be condemned so that he can have Maddalena for himself. He tries to retract his intervention but without success, and the leading couple go to the guillotine after a final duet that musically and dramatically owes a lot to Wagner and his concept of interpenetrated Love and Death.
The opera is a wonderful vehicle for three stars with lots of cameo roles for capable singer-actors too. The casting is uniformly fine down the line. Roberto Alagna’s voice has thinned out a little over the years but his consummate professionalism and admirable vocal technique make his portrayal of the title role totally secure. He is well matched by baritone Dimitri Platanias who brings a brooding intensity to his singing as well as a real menace in his predatory scene with Maddalena, the point at which Act Two of ‘Tosca’ seems nearest at hand. But the highest vocal honours go to Sondra Radvanovsky, who not only sketches the transition from innocence to experience with plausibility, but floats the most astonishingly delicate soft high notes heard in the Royal Opera House for many an evening. During her arias there was a hushed focused concentration on the part of the audience that you very rarely hear on press night.
Among the richly talented supporting cast Christine Rice gave a touching characterisation of Bersi, Maddalena’s friend who sacrifices her honour; David Stout sang very sweetly in support of Alagna, as his friend Roucher, and Rosalind Plowright, continued to defy the years by marking her seventieth birthday in another new role, the old Countess, who epitomises the values of the Old Regime. The swirl of actors, dancers and chorus took all their full-blooded chances with real energy and verve.
McVicar’s production is lavish but not predictable. Here the key to success lies with the set by Robert Jones, which cleverly re-positions the same sequence of walls several times to present a Rococo ballroom, a courtroom, a tavern and a prison with equal verisimilitude. These settings are then populated by a razzle-dazzle of soldiery and citizens, reminding us through Jenni Tiramani’s costumes of how far the French Revolution transformed fashions as much as it did politics. Each cumulating tableau is carefully thought out and developed and the stage never seems cramped, however many people are populating it.
This is not a subtle work by and large, but it does require a careful hand to guide it. For the greater part Daniel Oren controls his forces well, ensuring that the balance between the orchestra, whether on or off-stage, and the singers is well set. In some ways the biggest problem lies with the audience, whose applause regularly stops the action dead – it is a real intuitive skill to know from one night to the other just when to move on and when to let the emotional response have its head.
If you go to this show expecting deep metaphysics or scrupulous history you will be disappointed, but as a night at the opera it is very satisfying, not least because it delivers what opera does best – an absorbing political and personal narrative of well contrasted characters mediated through all the art forms in combination, whether song, orchestra, dance, acting, costume, set design or lighting.
- By Umberto Giordano
- Libretto by Luigi Illica
- Directed by David McVicar (revived by Marie Lambert)
- Conducted by Daniel Oren
- Cast includes: Roberto Alagna, Dimitri Platanias, Rosalind Plowright, Sondra Radvanovsky, Christine Rice
- Royal Opera House
- Until 9th June 2019