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.
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.
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.