Picture Credit: Marc Brenner and ROH
Artillery Row On Opera

Revolution in the air

Andrea Chénier, Royal Opera House

Nothing has ever looked more like an opera than Covent Garden’s lavish 2015 staging of Umberto Giordano’s 1896 show, now being restaged, and chosen as Tony Pappano’s swansong as music director. David McVicar’s assiduously all-encompassing production is all wigs, powder, knee britches and beauty spots, cartoonishly fey ballet interludes, “colourful” crowd scenes, ladies being “sexy” by emulating flouncetastic RuPaul contestants… Then there are the audials, also strongly reminiscent of that opera thing: big meaty orchestra music, a tenor and soprano bellowing top notes into each other’s faces, multi-layered musical scenes all mickey-moused with their own soundtracks, sorties of shimmering paradisal strings, harp cascades, heart-wrenching solo violins and cellos milking every ounce of feeling out of the turbid melodrama up there on the stage.

Plenty of local colour then, tumbrels rattling about all over the shop

And yet it’s all a sham, a mountain of sound and fury and campery amounting to utter inconsequence: exactly the sort of thing, in fact, that the general public believes that opera actually is. It’s an interesting experience, observing all this money being poured into a thing of basically no value whatsoever – though I hasten to add that it is also great entertainment, far from boring, terrific to look at, and extremely nice to listen to.

The story is a highly reworked bit of history, concocted by the writer Luigi Illica who would go on to produce a much pithier and better libretto for Puccini’s Tosca – which covers the same sort of territory – four years later. On the cusp of the French Revolution, the poet Chénier meets posh tot Maddalena (ie, Madeleine de Coigny) at a party at her chateau; four years later, as the Terror rages excitingly, they both find themselves on Robespierre’s little list and skulking about Paris trying to avoid the spies and narks who will dob them in to the Tribunal – now rather piquantly run by Madeleine’s bolshy ex-butler Gérard, who has always fancied having a proper crack at her. Chénier and Maddalena meet again, decide they are in love, and when he is arrested and put down for the chop, she bribes the jailer to let her do a swap with another prisoner so she and the poet can die together. Sweet! 

Plenty of local colour then, tumbrels rattling about all over the shop, Phrygian-capped mobs doing the Ça ira!, Carmagnole and Marseillaise, the comedy-extra tricoteuses transplanted to the Tribunal scene where they liven things up with bantsy back-chat and abuse of the unfortunate short-order aristo defendants. Determined to jam absolutely everything into the pot, Illica also backdates the remarkable Merveilleuses and Incroyables (actually posho survivors of the Terror who emerged after the fall of Robespierre) to shoehorn their flamboyant costumes and carry-on in his fancy-dress farrago. Plus of course the bit where Gérard finally has Maddalena at his mercy but in an access of nobility elects not to rape her after all.

You may ask, What could possibly go wrong? It seems to tick all the boxes. The simple answer is that Umberto Giordano’s music just isn’t up to it: almost dazzlingly virtuosic and decorative much of the time, and portentously dramatic, romantic and transcendent for the rest of it, these handily-labelled gobbets are merely samplers taken out of Giordano’s highly professional but basically jejune trunkful of available musics. Even performed with as much conviction as here – and Pappano urges his singers and particularly his orchestra to extraordinary heights of intensity and commitment, never for a moment admitting the possibility that it’s all absolute rubbish – the lack of genuine operatic substance can’t be wished away. 

Giordano finally finds his top gear and gives us a minute or two of actual opera

Also, amid all the frantic (and genuinely fun) overacting and crowd business, the central couple come across pretty colourless, their unmemorable tunes too obviously backed by highly manipulative chord sequences, arias-by-numbers heading towards artlessly semaphored high notes and “passionate” outbursts. And while both Sondra Radvanovsky and Jonas Kaufmann get through without disaster, and actually bring bags of style and volume to this unsubtle stuff, they are both past their best and there’s not enough of the true Italian “can belto” the thing demands. The peripheral characters are simply a lot jollier, and in many cases performed fabulously well: the sensational Mongolian baritone Armatüvshin Enkhbat sings conflicted Gérard with massive sonority, a gorgeous big dark mellifluous sound, and Katia Ledoux absolutely makes the most of her vignette as Bersi, Maddalena’s pal who fulfils her life’s ambition by turning merveilleuse/hooker at the Revolution. 

A bunch of what you might call competitively attention-seeking, striking minor characters come and go, flashily done by Aled Hall (the Abbé), James Cleverton (Mathieu), Alexander Kravets (the terrific spy L’Incredibile), Ashley Riches (Roucher) and Elena Zilio (Madelon). This last, an old dear sending her last remaining grandson off to die for La Patria, highlights another of Giordano’s failures: it’s a proper operatic episode, all sincere and wrenching as the old bat engagingly itemises her miseries, but it very soon descends to the sort of rank sentimentalising of genuinely horrific things that Puccini would never do – no, where Giordano flinches away from the truth, Puccini would milk the horror for all its sadistic shock value. 

Still, meretricious as this all certainly is, Andrea Chénier is in the end far more than a tarted-up Phantom or Les Mis: its expertise and ambition, as well as its fantastically luxurious execution, take it into another universe entirely. The great Pappano makes the music sound better (and louder) than it can ever have done, the eye-watering production values (designs by Robert Jones, Jenny Tiramani and Adam Silverman), Thomas Guthrie’s quirky and vivid revitalising of McVicar’s staging – everything adds up to a top night out. And when the doomed pair brace up and walk towards Mr Sanson’s tumbril in the chilly dawn light, Giordano finally finds his top gear and gives us a minute or two of actual opera, the stuff that whacks you in the gut and makes your hair stand on end. So that’s nice.

Runs until June 11

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