Fervent, but not very revolutionary

Versailles: Galerie des Glaces [photo: Mark Tyson]

Versailles: Galerie des Glaces

I wasn’t expecting to see Covent Garden’s new Andrea Chénier until next weekend, but was cajoled into a last-minute returned Upper Slips ticket for last night. For various reasons – not least, that it was a long, long week – I’m glad I’ll have a second chance at it.

I don’t really know Andrea Chénier, other than as a couple of over-impassioned excerpts such as La mamma morta and the closing duet. Judging by some Twitter commentators, it’s a piece of rare delicacy that calls for the most carefully cultivated voices and a production of subtle delicacy, making the most of the myriad options for reinterpretation. To me, it looked – and sounded – like a loud, brash load of old ham: one of those operas that makes a good noise, but isn’t going to change your world. 

David McVicar has provided a straightforward telling of the story, clean and clear, with a good deal of gilt in the early scenes and some more utilitarian walls and benches as things turn revolutionary. The opening scene’s amusingly preposterous minuet gavotte was a great comic foil for the brewing revolutionary fervour about to be unleashed. Other scenes functioned effectively, although the lighting in particular (and, most notably, the third act) was low on atmosphere (to aid video recording?) but I don’t see much in this short, straightforward narrative that would benefit from anything more radically interpretative.

Pappano gave a punchy, juicy reading of the score – perhaps a little loud on occasion, but nothing much was lost for that. It was never uninteresting as a score, but never really surprising either. Kaufmann was the star draw when the production was announced, and sang which his customary heroic ardour and luxuriant voice: whether it was where I was sitting or an off night, he didn’t sound quite as ringing as he has done – we’ll see a second time. As Maddalena, Eva-Maria Westbroek was a touching heroine, even if there was a tug or two on the heartstrings missing from La mamma morta: she was better suited to the self-sacrificing heroics of the last act. Željko Lučić accomplished the transformation of Gérard from arch-villain to revolutionary-with-conscience in sonorous voice. Amidst a notable group of smaller roles, Rosalind Plowright was a tremendous Contessa de Coigny, and Elena Zilio was very affecting as Madelon, offering up her son to the revolutionary cause.

On first encounter, Andrea Chénier is engaging, fast moving, tuneful, but not particularly affecting. We’ll see what a second viewing brings.

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