Archive | January, 2015

Starry Chenier

24 Jan

Something is going badly wrong with London’s operatic life. I’ve had to wait over a month for an opera to come round for me to go to. Do London’s opera audiences go into hibernation after Christmas? And there’s precious little outside London. I’m not sure when I’ve last had to wait so long between visits. It’s hard for addicts like me and I’ve been getting twitchy again. Fortunately, the drought ended with my visit to Andrea Chenier at the Royal Opera House on 23rd January.

It’s 31 years since I last saw the opera (Carreras, Plowright, Weikl, Armstrong conducting). I remember enjoying it but not finding it a particular piece that I wanted to get to know well and I’ve barely had anything to do with it since. A couple of years ago I bought the Levine recording (Domingo, Scotto, Milnes) and dug it out before going to this performance and I’m listening to it again as I write this.

I rather like the opera. It certainly deserves to be seen rather more often than every 30 years. It’s got a nice melodramatic plot, some really good arias and duets and plenty of action. I don’t mean it as a complaint if I say that it feels rather longer than its actual length: you get to the end of the acts and are a bit surprised that he’s managed to pack that amount of action and music into only 35 minutes and has done so without it seeming either rushed or boring. I suppose that it’s easy to sneer at it: it doesn’t have quite Puccini’s skill at creating perfectly structured and very touching masterpeieces or Verdi’s engagement with politics or Mozart’s with the depth of human emotion. It’s equally hard to dislike. It feels very much of its time, reminding me of Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac as a late 19th century depiction of a romantic historic past. But it still has those arias – Maddalena’s Senza Mamma and Gerard’s Act III aria both struck me a really powerful human statements – and there are very touching elements – the scene for Madelon (at this performance really wonderfully done by Elena Zilio) and its depiction of the Gaoler (another really lovely performance by Jeremy White). It’s a piece I’d like to get to know better.

Unless you actually despise the opera I think it would be hard to dislike this performance which delivered at least what you’d expect from this particular cast and director. I suppose that you could update the opera to some other revolutionary time or try something post-modern about a composer in the 1890s trying to write about the French Revolution but I’m not sure what the point would be. This is a consciously historic opera written to entertain and David McVicar’s period production did not more or less than follow that. It was beautifully detailed and looked gorgeous in a sort of Downton Abbey way. You could imagine that it might have been done exactly like this at its first night. To some that won’t be a compliment but I felt that it made the work come across honestly as exactly what it is: a good, old-fashioned melodrama. I’m not sure that I’d have it any other way.

We had Jonas Kaufmann as Chenier, looking absolutely the dashing romantic poet and singing with full-throated commitment and style. There certainly isn’t a tenor I’d rather see or hear doing the role today. He creates an intense, believable character: open, intellectual, honest. Sparks flew in his duets with Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Maddalena and they created a level of passion in their final duet that it will be hard to equal. Elsewhere, Miss Westbroek sang and acted with her usual generosity – she’s a very open, expressive artist with a really sympathetic stage presence. Vocally, I wondered if she was absolutely right for Maddalena -there’s a slight blowsiness about her singing and the words don’t come across as well as Scotto managed, but this is cavilling at a performance at a very high level.

I’d not come across Zeljko Lucic so far, but I hope this isn’t the only time I see him. He created a complex, black, lowering Gerard and sang his Act III aria with the sort of old fashioned power and understanding that struck me as spot on. He interested you in the character and made you believe in his dilemma and complexity. I’d love to hear him as Macbeth, Rigoletto or Boccanegra and he must make an absolutely terrifying Scarpia. This was outstanding singing and acting.

There are a lot of lesser roles in Chenier and they were generally well enough taken. In addition the two I’ve already mentioned, it was a nice idea to have Rosalind Plowright back, this time as Maddalena’s mother, and she gave a witty, very fine performance. Roland Wood made a lot of Roucher – sympathetic and really well sung – and Denyce Graves was a glamorous Bersi. The chorus was in good form.

Antonio Pappano conducted and got excellent playing out of the orchestra. I thought his reading was good and rose to considerable heights in the third and fourth acts – all very nicely placed. Levine, though, strikes me as getting a bit more sparkle and vigour out of the score.

Enough of criticism. Unless you essentially dislike the whole premise of operas and productions like this, you’d have to be a real sourpuss to do anything other than surrender admiringly to sheer conviction and strength of this performance. If you’re going to do it in this way, I can’t imagine it done beter. I hope we’ll see it again soon.