Close to You: Andrea Chénier at the Deutsche Oper Berlin

Giordano – Andrea Chénier

Andrea Chénier – Martin Muehle
Carlo Gérard – Roman Burdenko
La contessa di Coigny – Annika Schlicht
Maddalena di Coigny – Anja Harteros
Bersi – Anna Buslidze
Roucher – Pádraic Rowan
Mathieu, detto Populus – Lee Donghwan
Madelon – Ronnita Miller
Un Incredibile – Burkhard Ulrich
Pietro Fléville – Philipp Jekal
L’abate poeta – Huang Ya-Chung
Schmidt – Noel Bouley
Il maestro di casa – Matthew Cossack
Dumas – Matthew Cossack

Chor der Deutschen Oper Berlin, Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin / Francesco Angelico.
Stage director – John Dew.

Deutsche Oper, Berlin, Germany.  Saturday, January 18th, 2020.

The Deutsche Oper does not usually make photographs available of repertoire evenings such as this.  Apologies for the lack of photos with this review. 

With the best will in the world, it’s hard to claim that Andrea Chénier isn’t a problematic piece.  Some fine melodic fragments appear and then promptly disappear, and the individual characters feel underdeveloped, mainly due to the fact that they have so little stage time to make their mark.  In his 1994 production, here revived by Gerlinde Pelkowski, John Dew takes the work very much at face value, illustrating it, rather than necessarily interrogating it for deeper meaning.

I have no doubt that Dew’s staging was considered cutting edge 26 years ago – particularly in an impressive coup de théâtre at the end of Act 1, as a hydraulic panel where the aristocrats celebrated was hoisted up on one side by the revolutionaries, literally throwing the aristocrats off the stage.  Similarly, in Act 2, Dew portrayed a world of dark conspiracy, where individuals could be betrayed by shadowy figures in an instant, most effectively.  There were undoubtedly some memorable stage pictures – the closing image of Maddalena and Chénier going to the guillotine portrayed by a blade-shaped curtain descending over the final tableau was striking.

That said, so much of the personenregie consisted of characters staring into the middle distance, with arms outstretched, or with Martin Muehle’s Chénier singing his opening number with arm movements more redolent of the swimming pool than of a thoughtful poet.  Annika Schlicht’s Contessa was also prone to some (deliberate?) overacting, chewing up the scenery.

And yet, a performance of this work really does live or die on the strength of the singing and the Deutsche Oper had clearly cast this revival with great care.  As Chénier, this was my first encounter with the Brazilian tenor, and I imagine Muehle could be a very useful artist in the big Italian roles.  He can certainly provide volume, with squillo to spare, though he has a tendency to sing sharp, the core not sitting precisely on the note.  He’s a very generous artist, throwing out trumpeting high notes and never taking the foot off the gas.  It was undeniably exciting, but I do wish that he’d chosen to sing at dynamics lower than forte once in a while.

His Maddalena was Anja Harteros who poured her heart out for us in ‘la Mamma morta’, her distinctive silky, claret-toned soprano used with generosity.  The top has taken on an added steel over the years and the climax of her celebrated number was viscerally exciting.  But it was her contribution to the closing duet, ‘vicino a te’, that will stay with me.  She soared over the assembled forces in single-minded ecstasy – a trip to the guillotine has never sounded so glorious.  Roman Burdenko, a new name to me, sang Gérard.  He’s also the owner of a massive instrument, with fabulous resonance.  He dispatched his ‘nemico della patria’ with long-breathed phrases, vibrations even, and registers absolutely integrated.  Undoubtedly one to watch in the big Italian roles.

The remainder of the cast once again reflected the excellent standards maintained at this address, with several younger members of the ensemble getting to make their mark.  Not least Pádraic Rowan as Roucher, singing with a handsome baritone and good resonance.  Schlicht gave us a fruitily-sung Contessa, even if her Italian sounded to my ears more of Moabit than Milan.  Anna Buslidze brought a fresh, youthful mezzo to the role of Bersi, but sadly wasn’t always audible over the surging band.  Burkhard Ulrich brought a narrow yet characterful tenor to the role of the Incroyable.  Ronnita Miller was luxury casting as Madelon – perhaps somewhat youthful in tone for the old woman, but her plush, juicy contralto with wonderful sheen was a pleasure to hear.

Jeremy Bines’s chorus had a good evening – agreeable in blend in the ‘pastorale’ and producing a wall of sound in the big crowd scenes.  As with last night’s Jenůfa, the Deutsche Oper orchestra was on excellent form.  Francesco Angelico secured playing founded on a thick-pile carpet of string sound, with brass that seemed to roar from the pits of hell.  They made a magnificent noise.  Angelico’s tempi were swift, frequently pushing ahead, although he took the middle section of ‘la Mamma morta’ extremely slowly – it worked thanks to Harteros’s magnetic interpretation.  While Angelico’s conducting didn’t exactly provide any particularly new insights into the work, he did succeed in keeping stage and pit tightly together.

This was definitely an exciting, and loud, evening in the theatre, one warmly received by the Berlin public who gave the entire cast, especially the three central principals, generous and frequent ovations.  While the staging logically illustrated the events of the plot and the conducting was efficient and business-like, what distinguished this evening was the uninhibited, visceral singing from the principal trio.

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The Deutsche Oper Berlin
© Leo Seidel

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