Strong Opera North Chenier

6 Mar

You wait thirty years for an Andrea Chenier and then two come along in quick succession.  Following the ROH’s luxury, all-star version last year, Opera North have come up with, their essential or, perhaps “value” version on, I imagine, a pretty small fraction of the budget.  I caught it in Newcastle on 5th March.

It’s good to see the piece again and I can feel that I’m begin to get something of a soft spot for it.  I like the mixture of public and private, I think that the portrayals particularly of Gerard and Maddalena are very strong indeed and I rather enjoy the music.  It may not be earth-shatteringly original; it may be slightly slow moving in places, but I rather enjoy seeing a pretty well made opera which has strengths even if it’s not quite the way Puccini would have done it.  In a performance as good as this, it feels like a strong, convincing opera.

Opera North’s big advantage is that it works in relatively small, intimate theatres where you can get away with voices that probably wouldn’t work at Covent Garden and avoid lavish sets so that you can concentrate on the plot and on the characters.  There’s a concentration about this that works and which enable different effects, provided that you’ve a good cast and director.

Annabel Arden’s production was very strong indeed.  Joanna Parker’s set is bare-bones – screens of chain mail (the servants also wear this in Act I) and scaffolding provide a very flexible arrangement for the different locations – a huge staircase and windows for Act I, an auditorium for the trial in Act III, a bare stage for the last act.  In Act I, instead of hordes of servants doing extravagant routines, you have a single chaise longue and Gerard’s father weighed down by a huge harp.  The poor stick their hands through the chains which is all you see of them.  The smaller stage means a smaller group of people for the party, but you can concentrate on who is who, get more out of the conversations and the Chenier/Maddalena/Gerard triangle is strongly set up.

In Act II, there’s a palpable sense of fear and uncertainty: characters shifting, spying – and the spies are not remotely funny.  The chorus turns convincingly into an angry crowd, staring straight out at the audience at the end.  This continues into Act III where you sense that Gerard’s power is fragile but the confrontation between him and Maddalena is intense and convincing and the pared down approach continues to the final scene.  The great conversations come over truly, between individuals with great emotions rather than cardboard characters.  You get this in an intimate auditorium on a small-ish stage to an extent that you simply cannot at the Royal Opera House.

It was outstandingly well cast.  Annemarie Kremer made an entirely convincing, strongly sung Maddalena.  She sang with a clear simplicity that made her obsession with Chenier convincing.  The big Act III aria was sung in a way which made you follow the emotions and words and understand what she was going through.  Her voice is large and, managed the climaxes with no trouble at all.  I’d love to see her do Tosca here.  What about Turandot?

Robert Hayward’s voice isn’t the most beautiful instrument but he can convey that sort of decent, angry, conflicted emotion that this role needs as well as anyone else.  This was an intensely honest, open portrayal of the role and he has the heft for it.

In the title role Rafael Rojas again, has the power for the role and, again, sang intelligently.  The big ideas of the Improviso and the last aria were built superbly.  He’s not necessarily a convincing revolutionary hero but he portrayed a thoughtful, honest outsider.

But is wasn’t just this trio.  The smaller parts were done without a single weak link.  I expected Fiona Kimm to be excellent as the grotesque Countess and the simple Madelon, but Ross McInroy as the gaoler and Dean Robinson as Fleville, both from the chorus, made really strong impressions. Anna Dennis was an excellent Bersi, Phillip Rhodes, a new name to me, was a very strong, sympathetic Roucher and his voice struck me a very promising.  Daniel Norman doubled the Abate and Incredibile very effectively indeed – neither were comic or figures of fun.  This detailed direction created just the sense of community that this opera needs.

I’ve left Oliver von Dohnanyi last, but his vivid, very clear conducting was as central to the success as Ms Arden’s direction.  He paced it convincingly, caught the passion and terror and phrased the numbers idiomatically.  You didn’t notice any gap between music and staging.  The Opera North orchestra was on superb form.  This was gutsy playing from the heart.  The chorus seemed to be having a great time.

Now I’m not arguing that this performance could have worked in the much larger spaces of the Royal Opera House or that Messrs Rojas and Hayward are in the same league as Kaufmann and Lucic, but in a smaller auditorium, with more daring, interesting direction and equally committed conducted, this Chenier packed as great a punch.

The opera hasn’t been done in the North in living memory and this audience had the opportunity to see it in as good a light as possible.  It demonstrates why I love Opera North – the ability to do projects that ought to be over-ambitious but which they in ways which are practical and which succeed triumphantly.


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