Vocal Revolution: Andrea Chénier at the Royal Opera House

Giordano – Andrea Chénier

Andrea Chénier – Roberto Alagna
Carlo Gérard – Dimitri Platanias
La contessa di Coigny – Rosalind Plowright
Maddalena di Coigny – Sondra Radvanovsky
Bersi – Christine Rice
Roucher – David Stout
Mathieu, detto Populus – Adrian Clarke
Madelon – Elena Zilio
Un Incredibile – Carlo Bosi
Pietro Fléville – Stephen Gadd
L’abate poeta – Aled Hall
Schmidt – Jeremy White
Il maestro di casa – John Cunningham
Dumas – Germán E Alcántara

Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Daniel Oren.
Stage director – David McVicar

The Reign of Terror in revolutionary France was a period of great upheaval where old certainties died, and the threat of execution was ever present.  For many, it was a harrowing time of fear and danger.  Watching David McVicar’s staging of Giordano’s opera Andrea Chénier, here revived by Marie Lambert, one wouldn’t really imagine this to be as terrible as it surely must have been.  McVicar gives us a sanitized and Disneyfied vision of history, a place where the colours are bright, extras mill around, and principals stand and deliver to the front.  It’s all tightly choreographed and the army of extras, company members and chorus always have something to do.  But it feels all too clean, as if unwilling to really look at, consider, and bring to life the full range of events in the libretto.

Photo: © ROH/Catherine Ashmore

This is opera for those who want escapist entertainment, who want a night out looking at pretty dresses and to be entertained.  But surely it should be more than this?  This is a story of shadowy figures, of imminent death, of the conflict between those who have it all and those who have nothing, and the tragedy of seeing a world disappear.  Are we really to believe that the guards would just let Maddalena and Chénier make out, without even trying to break them up as they head to the guillotine?  With the best will in the world, Giordano’s work is problematic.  He crams a considerable amount of action into two hours of music and adds what feels like a cast of thousands, many of whom have a number of cameos as the evening unfolds.  So often, there are some terrific melodic fragments that seem to want to burst into memorable melodies, but don’t quite manage to as he already moved on to the next idea.  Still, there are some fantastic set pieces for the three principals and under the right director it has the potential to be a fantastic romp.

Photo: © ROH/Catherine Ashmore

It must be admitted that tonight took a little while to find its groove.  The opening act felt somewhat routine, with a sense of the large cast going through the motions, not helped by Daniel Oren’s conducting that ranged between lethargic and the kind of extremely fast tempo that had the Royal Opera’s hard-pressed strings struggling to keep up.  And yet, in Act 2 something happened.  That something was Sondra Radvanovsky’s Maddalena.  Her Act 2 narration demonstrated not only a voice with a fabulous technique, but also the ability to use her instrument to hold and convince the audience.  Radvanovsky demonstrated precisely why a bel canto technique is essential to vocal health, floating seemingly endless phrases on the breath, using a wealth of vocal colour to bring the words to life.  The resonance is staggering, filling the room and overtaking the listener without a hint of strain.  Her ‘la mamma morta’ was glorious, starting off on a thread of tone, yet still carrying through the theatre, building up with the voice soaring, seemingly without limits.  This was without doubt a masterful piece of singing.  Yet what Radvanovsky also achieved, was to energize her colleagues and transform the evening into what seemed at first to be a routine amble through the score in an anodyne staging, to a night of high vocal drama.

Photo: © ROH/Catherine Ashmore

Indeed, the way that Roberto Alagna’s Chénier reacted to Radvanovsky in the Act 2 duet was spellbinding, immediately raising his game, singing with more freedom and communicative power.  It must be admitted that Alagna’s tenor has seen some heavy use over the years.  The golden tone of yore is now a little frayed around the edges.  What hasn’t diminished is the immediacy of his communication and his ability to create a character through vocal means.  He also pulled out some thrilling, open singing on high, where required, bringing out the poetic ardour of his character.  Dimitri Platanias brought his absolutely firm, stentorian baritone to Gérard.  The tone is rock solid, even throughout the range, and he rode the orchestra with ease.  He sang his ‘nemico della patria’ with exciting force.

Photo: © ROH/Catherine Ashmore

It would be impossible to discuss the remainder of the extensive cast at length, but they reflected the respectable standards of the house.  A special mention for Christine Rice’s extrovert Bersi and the matchless Elena Zilio’s heart-breaking Madelon, still with stage presence to spare.  The chorus, which recently has shown some significant improvement under their director William Spaulding, wasn’t on its best form.  It was hard to discern pitch in the ladies during the Act 1 pastorale due to the battle of vibratos, but ensemble was tight throughout.  For once, the brass of the Royal Opera orchestra behaved but, as mentioned above, the strings sounded scrappy and stressed.

Photo: © ROH/Catherine Ashmore

Tonight, was most definitely all about the singing.  And what singing we were given, by a trio of principals on blazing form, who managed to transcend the numbing effect of a Disneyfied and sanitized staging, creating an evening of vocal high drama.  It was a shame to see so many empty seats, especially in the affordable sections that usually sell well – a hint, perhaps, that the Royal Opera’s audience and pricing policy may well be backfiring.  Certainly, lovers of great singing will want to hear this.

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