In Review Stage Reviews

Gran Theatre del Liceu 2017-18 Review – Andrea Chénier: Sondra Radvanovsky Steals the Show From Jonas Kaufmann in Barcelona

There is something of Halley’s comet about Umberto Giordano’s most famous opera “Andrea Chénier.” It reappears every so often (happily not so infrequently as every 75 years) excites and dazzles, leaves verismo fanatics in paroxysms of delight, then vanishes back into the operatic firmament.

With the recent notable exception at La Scala, productions of “Andrea Chénier” have invariably been connected to a star tenor.  Beniamino Gigli in the 40s, Mario del Monaco in the 50s, Franco Corelli in the 60s, Plácido Domingo in the 70s, then Luciano Pavarotti and José Carerras in the 80s. Now Jonas Kaufmann is Giordano’s ill-fated poet for the 21st century. Sir David McVicar’s pastel pretty production for Covent Garden in 2015 was created for the celebrated German tenor and has now moved south as the jewel in the Gran Teatre del Liceu’s 2018 season.

Barcelona is no stranger to Giordano’s masterwork, having first staged “Chénier” in 1898 only two years after its premiere at La Scala. The Liceu is above all a singers house. The chance of seeing a production by Hans Neuenfels or Krzysztof Warlikowski on La Rambla is as unlikely as a stripper-gram walking into the seriously chic Círculo del Liceo private opera club within the building.

What French Revolution? 

This meant that there were no nasty shocks in this traditional co-production also shared with Beijing and San Francisco. There is nothing remotely raw or revolutionary about McVicar’s staging – even Jenny Tiramani’s costumes for the supposedly miserable sans-culottes smacked of Christian Lacroix in designer peasant mode. Immaculately white ruffled bonnets, pretty pinafores, and sensible shiny shoes suggested that the anarchists were at least well-fed and shod. Perhaps the Parisian regicides were better off than the supposedly famished provincial “Sua Grandezza la Miseria” who gatecrash la Comtesse de Coigny’s soirée musicale, although they also looked more grande bouffe than bulimic. This was not just a velvet revolution, it was so sanitized it looked like a Poussin tableau vivant. There was a trio of Madame Defarge’s in the Courtroom scene knitting away with such precision they could have been shooting a commercial for Missoni. Even the seedy café Hottot looked more like the Café de Flore without the soi-disant celebrities.

Chénier merely grazes Gérard’s arm in the sword fight and unless he had access to poisoned orc-blades, it certainly strained credibility to believe such a nick could be fatal.  The valet turned vigilante reappeared in Act three with two deep saber wounds on his face which were hard to explain unless Gérard was either a serial duelist or very clumsy at shaving. For some reason, McVicar also has Chénier falling around drunk for most of Act two as if he had somehow slipped into Nemorino mid-performance. There was none of Philipp Stölzl’s gruesomely graphic chopping off Jonas Kaufmann’s handsome head as in Munich – the doomed paramours simply stroll hand-in-hand to the tumbrel as if enjoying a morning promenade on the Place Vendôme.

There were also a couple of historical anomolies in McVicar’s usually meticulously researched staging. Gérard may hate the “casa dorata” but Robert Jones’ gilded furniture in Chȃteau Coigny was more style Empire than Louis XVI and Andrew George’s very trite pastoral classical ballet sequence was 50 years too early. The first time en pointe appeared was in La Sylphide with Maria Taglioni in 1832.

No Italian Flavor

Giordano’s polychrome partitura was played by the Orquesta Sinfónica del Gran Teatre del Liceu with accuracy but not exactly Italianate affectivity. That said, there were spirited “brilliante” openings to Acts one and two, winds were consistently chirpy (especially flutes and a bouncy staccato bassoon solo before Gérard’s “Perduto”), strings showed crisp sforzandi and biting marcati and there were seductive violin and cello solos during “Scrive una donna misteriosa” and before “la mamma morta” respectively.

The problem was that Pinchas Steinberg’s reading was neither as puissant nor as lyrical as other interpretations. During “la mamma morta” there is a downbeat forte A natural for cellos and basses between “Sorridi e spera!” and “Io son l’amore!” which was made highly dramatic by other conductors, but Steinberg glossed over it altogether. Tempi were often on the slow side, especially in the music for Chénier. The “Improvviso” is marked “andante,” not “lento,” and “Come un bel dì di maggio” indicated as “andantino” and not “pesante.” Obviously, this was not a unilateral decision. Paradoxically the gavotte was more like a gallop.

Strong Support

The numerous comprimario characters were well-cast with memorable contributions from Francisco Vas as an excellent Incredibile with the evil arrogance of a Dominican Grand Inquisitor, Christian Díaz as the corrupt gaoler Schmidt and David Sánchez as a dastardly Dumas. His stentorian annunciation of the “Morte” sentence was one of the performance’s few scary moments. Sandra Ferrández was an especially ditsy Comtesse. Voice and diction were similarly unfastidious. As Chéniers’ devoted admirer Roucher, Fernando Radó was the most impressive of the smaller roles. The Argentinean baritone has an appealing stage presence, excellent projection, and a mellifluous timbre, usually stronger in the lower tessitura but on this occasion showing a solid top as well. His short “Calligrafia invero femminil!” was memorable for its scherzoso whimsy, intelligent phrasing, and convincing characterization.  The optional high E flats on “Chenier” when urging his friend to flee were refulgent. Radó is a Gérard or Posa for the future.

Legendary Casting

In a remarkable piece of casting, the role of the zealot granny Madelon was sung by 77-year-old Anna Tomowa-Sintow. This great Bulgarian soprano, who was an acclaimed Maddalena in her own right, certainly doesn’t have the voice of yore but it fitted the character of the rabid aged revolutionary. Admittedly the top G naturals were a bit thin and wobbly, but there was still plenty of meat in the low E flat chest notes and Tomowa-Sintow’s intelligent word coloring and pristine diction were a model for younger singers.

When Christina Scheppelmann, the formidable Artistic Director of the Liceu, came to the proscenium before the performance, yelps of anguish rebounded in the 2,292-seat auditorium. Given his track-record of frequent cancellations, there was a dreaded anticipation that Kaufmann would not sing. The news was only marginally better – Carlos Álvarez was indisposed and would be replaced by the second cast Gérard, Michael Chioldi. Certainly, Chioldi does not have quite the same stage and vocal presence as the bravura baritone from Málaga, but was on the whole more than capable. There was slight constriction on the fortissimo top F sharp on “morte” which concluded a snarling “T’odio, casa dorata!” and similarly on the high F at “questa viltà!” when throwing in the towel, or at least his wig and livery. Chioldi became more comfortable as the opera progressed and “Lacrime e sangue dà la Francia!” justifiably deserved the donations from the ostensibly impoverished cittadine. There was powerful singing in the pivotal “Nemico della patria” aria with some robust marcato top E naturals on “e mentre uccido io piango!” The burst of lyricism on “La coscienza nei cuor ridestar delle genti” built to a wonderful climax with a rock-solid sustained F sharp on “un sol bacio.” By the fff top F sharp on “saprò” before the trial scene, Chioldi was very much on vocal terra firma.

Man of the Hour? 

In 2015, Jonas Kaufmann scored a personal triumph as Andrea Chénier when this production was first seen in Covent Garden. In the intervening three years, the acclaimed German tenor has had a number of vocal ailments and it would be disingenuous to aver that the voice is of the same quality as before. There was always a dark, husky, burnished timbre, but the gear change between mid and head voice is now alarmingly marked. Despite being technically a lyrico-spinto tenor, Kaufmann never had the squillo “ping.” Kaufmann’s celebrated crescendo technique employed in the tranquillo A flat on “Ora soave” was not only slightly strangulated but under pitch. There were, however, several thrilling moments such as the top B flat’s on “T’amo” in the “Improvviso” and the final “Credi” in “Credi al destino?” Even better was an absolutely effulgent top A flat on “Uccidi” in the courtroom scene monologue, but seamless conformity of timbre was lacking. In “Un dì all’azzurro spazio”, the ecstatic “eccola la bellezza della vita” was not “con slancio” as marked but almost off-hand. The climatic “amor, divino dono” had more pungency but was still a long way from having orgasmic fervor. “Come un bel dì di maggio” began with the correct pianissimo dynamic but “si spegne in firmamento” had a quirky coloring with labored breath control. Dramatically Kaufmann was more detached than in London three years ago. The “Improvviso” was less like an impassioned peon against injustice than a routine salesman’s (no German pun intended) pitch.

Star of the Night

Kaufmann’s recent partners to the scaffold have included the slightly matronly Eva-Maria Westbroek in Covent Garden and the dramatically more committed Anja Harteros in Munich, but American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky was unquestionably the queen of the Coigny crop. Her characterization was an entirely credible transformation of a naive Tatyana-ish enfante gâtée into a passionate mature woman of resolution and fortitude.

Vocally, Radvanovsky was even more impressive and it was difficult to believe that she was singing Maddalena for the first time. “Son sola al mondo!” and the following pianissimo F natural on “Proteggermi volete?”  were deeply moving and the “Ora soave” phrase in the Act two duet had an evenness of phrasing missing from the tenor part. Radvanovsky has a big voice but full of nuance, shading and a finely controlled vibrato. In some of the chest notes, such as the guttural C sharp blast on “prendimi,” she was not dissimilar to the incomparable Maria Callas. Not surprisingly, “La mamma morta” was a show-stopper. The pain in “Fame e miseria! Il bisogno, il periglio!” was palpable, the piano E natural on “Bersi, buona e pura” flawlessly limpid, the sweeping “Vivi ancora! Io son la vita!” a tsunami of lyric phrasing and the top B natural fermata “un ciel” cut through the fortissimo orchestral tutti sharper than Madame la Guillotine. Radvanovsky had barely intoned the final G natural on “l’amor” when the house erupted with such an outburst of cheering and applause the performance was interrupted for close to four minutes. Opera aficionados at the Liceu certainly know good singing when they hear it and respond with extraordinary enthusiasm. Even the infamously capricious loggianisti in Parma are timid in comparison to the cacophonous Catalans. With Radvanovsky’s roof-shattering top B flat on “Amante” leading to the final ecstatic “La nostra morte è il trionfo dell’amor!” duet, the performance soared to the heights of Halley’s celestial comet.

Finally, verismo à la Giordano in Barcelona was served caliente and the enormously receptive Catalans weren’t afraid of heartburn.

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25 Responses

  1. Mr. Jonathan Sutherland
    Havent You heard under which cicumstances Jonas Kaufmann was on stage? He better had cancelled than have such a review from an ignorant person!
    Please apologize to him!
    Waltraud Becker

    1. Madame Becker. If a singer is in any way disposed, it is common practice to make an announcement beforehand or cancel. Pointing out failings in an specific performance is not ignorant, it is the job of an experienced critic. The irrefutable truth is that Kaufmann is not singing nearly as well as he did 3 years ago, especially in such a demanding role as Andrea Chenier.

    2. Dear Waltraud! As an admirer of Mr.Kaufmann, shall I ask, under what kind of circumstances did he sing in Barcelona? Thank you very much!

  2. If Radvanovsky sang a B flat on the word “Amante” in the last act, she was a half tone sharp. It is written as an A natural.

    1. In the Kalmus edition of Andrea Chenier p. 346 bar 2-5 is a 3 measure sustained B flat.

  3. Highly cogent commentary about all singers. Be careful regarding details of the score. But, outside of this, spot-on apt in many ways that many others are afraid to venture. Emperor’s new clothes, etc.

  4. Mate: His mother has died some days before the premiere in Barcelona and he had to fly home inbetween the performances for funeral.
    This is no “indisposition” to be ananounced.
    He better had cancelled instead of catching such awful words.
    Mr. Sutherland: did You notice that Mr. Kaufmann sang an other Chenier several times in München 2017; You did not mention his singing there. By the way: he was breathtaking.
    Waltraud Becker

    1. Ms Becker,

      I don’t think that Mr Sutherland is in anyway attacking or questioning Kaufmann the person. He is simply stating his observation on a performance. And I believe he stated quite clearly that he did enjoy many moments of Kaufmann’s performance. I don’t think you are being fair or even respectful in how you are directing yourself toward him. Might I remind you that this a public forum for all to see and using words such as “awful” or “ignorant“ does little in aiding your argument. If you feel that Kaufmann was great, we welcome you to express those opinions and even refute Mr. Sutherland with respectful rhetoric.

      Thank you.

  5. Mr. Salazar,
    I did not hear the performances in Barcelona live and therefor I cannot mention an opinion about the performance. My intention to comment belongs to the human being Jonas Kaufmann.
    The way Mr.Sutherland writes about Kaufmanns vocal performance is without any respect. Now, as he knows, what happened in Kaufmann`s life in those days, he should react human and polite, instead of being “defended” by You as the owner of the site.

  6. Monsieur Sutherland
    Je me permets de vous écrire en français puisque vous connaissez notre belle langue… Ma question est simple : étiez-vous au courant de la situation personnelle de Jonas Kaufmann et de la perte qu’il venait d’éprouver au moment où vous avez rédigé votre critique? Une deuxième question : n’est-ce pas normal que les voix évoluent en trois ans, c’est le cas de tous les chanteurs, non ?

    1. Madame Elizabeth,

      Je comprends vos questions, mais c’est importante de separé la vie personelle et la professionelle, n’est pas? Si Kaufmann pense que sa vie personelle va faire un effet negatif pendant la presentation, il a le choix de faire un cancelation. Mais il a decidé chanter et il connait les risques que vient avec cette decision.

      Merci pour votre commentaire.

  7. great review, the kind of reviews you don’t read anymore but which were ‘common usage’ before WWII or even in the fifties and alte sixties. I thought it was brilliant and to the point.
    Mr Sutherland was spot on on mr Kaufmann’s vocal abilities

  8. Fred,
    seems the abilities of Mr. Sutherland are unilateral. He is perhaps able to write in a well organized speech, but his humanity is clearly underdeveloped.
    To read a review of a singer in his full vocal AND MENTAL ability may be of interest, but an attack on a human in one of the worst situations of life is just indecent. He did not even think it necessary to mention in which situation the singer was on stage. As I said before: Kaufmann would have better cancelled …..

    1. Ms. Becker,

      Maybe you are correct in stating that Kaufmann should have canceled. But clearly he didn’t make that choice and assumed all the risks that come with a performance, including the ones where he might not be in top form. It is essential to be human and understanding in times of difficulty, but clearly Kaufmann felt that he was capable of giving a high-quality performance on stage and possibly overestimated his own abilities in this regard. Maybe he felt that he owed the audience that had come to see him, but at the same time, they came to see his greatness, not him in suboptimal conditions. There are a few videos online of the performances and I invite you to check them out; they aren’t particularly flattering to Mr. Kaufmann respectfully. I don’t think that audiences wanted to experience that Kaufmann and even if they did understand his situation, that doesn’t mean that they can’t walk away disappointed by his performance.

      In any case, I find it interesting that instead of honing in on the positive comments that Mr. Sutherland made about Kaufmann’s performance, you chose to zero in on the negative ones as if they were the only ones that exist.

      And regarding your personal attacks on Mr. Sutherland (his underdeveloped humanity), I don’t think this is the best way to win your argument or convince anyone that you have the moral high ground.

      Thanks as always for your comments.

  9. Great, objective review! It seems that Ms. Waltraud Becker is someone who can not accept any criticism surrounding Jonas Kaufmann. It is not the first website where I see her writing this type of hostile comments if a review or any kind of statement surrounding Kaufmann is not in his favour.

  10. I know all the videos (at least 14) and even audios. Cant hear what Mr. Sutherland had heard, but I was not there…
    I insist on what I said, especially as friends, who were in different of the 3 performances, reported, that Kaufmann was fantastic. Audience got what was expected.
    May be Mr. Suherland cannot accept, that -even when the costume was the same – Kaufmann is not the same as 2015. Every person matures and Kaufmanns voice grew more expressive in that time and even darker. To inform You: have heard him 3 times in the last 4 months with totally different music; all was perfect.
    Mr. Sutherland: Sometimes it is not proper in the circumstances to publish a bad meaning. Si tacuisses philosophus mansisses!
    Mr.Salazar: It is not wise to go on defending a bad mistake instead of apologizing. Makes no good meaning on Your medium.

  11. Jules, I cannot accept critics which are full of disparagement abou any human, any singer, any musician. In that case the circumstances are so sad, that a honest person would have wrote nothing instead of such insulting words. Kaufmann, if he is not at his best, is anyway better that so many other singers, who get their praise, regardless of their performance. I do not need say more, You will know it!

  12. Walraud, you have all my support…! We all now clearly know what Mr.Sutherland as a critic and as a human being and Mr.Salazar as head of Operawire think of Jonas Kaufmann as far as his artistry and moral values are concerned… Our opinion is formed now… It’s a pity because I used to consider Operawire as a good well-balanced media…Too bad !

  13. Too late, Mr.Salazar…! You have Lost your credibility among opera-goers (not silly blinded fans, mind you…)who used to appreciate your personal publications and opinions… Too bad…!

    1. That’s a shame… best of luck to you Ms. Valois! May you and Mr. Philip II live a happy and prosperous life.

  14. I am glad you didn’t lose your sense of humour… I didn’t either…!

  15. The truth is that however JK is singing, he is still the best around; on the other hand we are reading reviews that Mr. Netrebko sings o.k in Andrea
    So is it the wish of critics to be more interesting by writing Kaufman does not sing well? Knowing that JK has many admirers?It seems so.
    Ok, so let the critics say what they want, and those who like Kaufman ‘s singing will not read reviews.
    Anyway, we will judge those critics reviews in 10 years time and see if they were right.
    But I m sure in 10 years time they will claim they always said Kaufman was the best.
    It s all about ego and wish to be interesting.

    1. There is no dispute that Kaufmann is a very fine singer and in a number of roles “still the best around”.
      However being human, no singer can always give flawless performances and on this occasion, Kaufmann did not live up to his well-deserved reputation. His recent vocal surgery has unquestionably had an affect.
      It is not a question of ‘ego’ or wanting to be ‘more interesting’. Each performance must be judged on its own merits. Even Callas had the occasional bad day – but not many.

  16. I was fortunate enough to attend a Liceu performance and loved Mr. Kaufmann’s beautiful, elegant and supremely nuanced presentation. I am not an expert, however. I did notice that Sondra’s enormous voice drowned Jonas out in their last duet. How was this allowed to happen?
    Her Mamma Morta was one of my most sublime opera moments ever. The tears were rolling!
    Thank you Mr. Sutherland for a most instructive review which strives to be objective, sans malveillance.

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