Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier is a good old-fashioned operatic potboiler. Premiered at La Scala in 1896, the story is very loosely based on real events. Its titular hero did indeed meet his end via guillotine during the French Revolution, but in this telling it’s thanks to the machinations of his rival in love, Carlo Gérard. A prominent figure in the Revolution, Gérard once served in the household of the noblewoman Maddalena de Coigny, naturally the mutual object of their affections. Maddalena, in love with Chénier, spurns Gérard at first but comes close to bartering her body in order to rescue her beloved, in vain. The opera ends with both of their deaths.
Ludovic Tézier, Pinchas Steinberg, Eva-Maria Westbroek and Jonas Kaufmann in Opera Australia’s Andrea Chénier. Photo © Keith Saunders
If that’s awfully reminiscent of Tosca, it’s because the librettos for both works were written by Puccini’s frequent collaborator, Luigi Illica. But don’t expect the same musical sophistication or dramatic immediacy of Puccini’s “shabby little shocker” – Chénier is undoubtedly a lesser opera. The plot is thin and the melodies are few, made even more apparent when presented in concert – it’s a very fortunate thing indeed that Opera Australia has managed to nab the singers it has.
Andrea Chénier is a tenor vehicle, and there’s no tenor alive that sings the title role as splendidly as Jonas Kaufmann. His third appearance with the company after 2014’s operatic arias recital and 2017’s staggering Parsifal, it’s another fitting showcase for his manifold talents. Singing with thrilling power and burnished tone, the trumpet-like quality of his top paid dividends when it came to the score’s many climactic moments. But while Kaufmann easily commands the range and volume needed for the part, he’s an artist who has always demonstrated singing of great refinement as well. Without being mannered, his approach to phrasing is elegant and always thought out, while his seamless ability to move between pianissimo and full voice is rightly famed. He brought total conviction to the first act Improvviso, capturing the revolutionary poet’s youthful ardour, while the virility of attack in his defiance of the court in act three was simply electrifying. While there were a few moments of dry tone over the course of the evening, Kaufmann more than compensated for it by bringing ample refulgence to the love duet in act two, Ora Soave, Sublime Ora D’Amore, and the rhapsodic Come un bel dì di Maggio. The tenor has an innate understanding of the music, of how to pace it and invest it with urgency.
Pinchas Steinberg and Jonas Kaufmann. Photo © Keith Saunders
While the soprano tackling Maddalena has less to do than her tenor counterpart, Giordano does lavish on her the show-stopping aria La Mamma Morta. Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek appeared in the role opposite Kaufmann for the Royal Opera House’s 2015 production, and she brings her experience to bear here. Offering up a deeply committed take on a less than nuanced character with limited stage time, Westbroek made La Mamma Morta a searing exploration of grief, deprivation and eventual hope. While the top of the voice betrays a wobble when under pressure, the soprano makes up for it with the sheer glory of her sound, rich and enveloping, as well as the detail of her singing. The phrase “Corpo di moribunda e il corpo mio” (The body of a moribund is what my body is) was one of chilled and wrenching expression, fully encapsulating the character’s despair. It’s testament to Westbroek’s skill that the carefree Maddalena we encounter in the first act sounds worlds apart from the one we encounter plunged in to the ravages of the Revolution. Singing with infinite colours, she is appropriately rhapsodic in her duets with Kaufmann, culminating in their final duet before the guillotine. At first fervid in their declarations of love, they become simply thrilling as they hurl defiance at death.
As the zealot who gets between our lovers, French baritone Ludovic Tézier was an eloquent, magnificently sung Carlo Gérard. His sonorous, patrician voice has plenty of bite and like Westbroek, he uses the text to brilliant effect, aided by well-honed diction. Producing some of the evening’s most rounded, focused singing, Tézier revealed not only Gérard’s profound rage at his low birth and prospects, but a burgeoning awareness of his own conscience. His Nemico della patria was an object lesson of characterisation, incisive and impassioned, demonstrating an unfailing sense of legato, rhythmic acuity and steely sound. For many audiences, the great discovery of this Chénier will be Tézier.
Pinchas Steinberg, Eva-Maria Westbroek and Jonas Kaufmann. Photo © Keith Saunders
In addition to the three principals, Chénier has a large cast of supporting characters. These were skilfully taken, especially Dominica Matthews’ haughty, callous Contessa di Coigny, Sian Sharp’s steadfast Bersi, and Benjamin Rasheed’s suitably insinuating Incredibile. Anna Dowsley makes a memorable vignette of Madelon’s sacrifice of her grandson, while Richard Anderson and Luke Gabbedy are both in firm voice for Roucher and Mathieu respectively. Graeme Macfarlane (The Abbé), Christopher Hillier (Fléville), Jonathan Alley (Major-Domo/Dumas) and Alexander Hargreaves (Fouquier-Tinville/Schmidt) provided valuable support, as did the Opera Australia Chorus, who sang with power and conviction.
Freed from the pit, the Opera Australia Orchestra under Pinchas Steinberg was highly attuned to the singers’ needs, never overpowering them yet still giving a vibrant account of Giordano’s lusciously orchestrated yet surprisingly delicate score. The pastiche 18th-century dances, revolutionary songs and military drumrolls were all handled adeptly – this was a highly fluent, idiomatic reading, served up with some sensational, old-school singing.