This was a great night at the Royal Opera. Spectacular singing not just of the first class but exceptional at the international level and showcased in a bright new production that added to the understanding of the story. Enrico Carouso sang Andrea Chénier, the title role, here at Covent Garden for two performances in July 1907 in a revival of the production of 1905, those performances must have been similarly thrilling in the style of those times.

Andrea Chénier has a reputation as one of those operas which gives grand opera a bad name but in an immensely pleasurably way. Umberto Giordano wrote Andrea Chénier a couple of decades before World War 1, at the time of the French Belle Époque, but looking back at the French revolution, then a century previously. Royal Opera’s new production uses detailed, luscious period costumes and a cameo ballet.
Jonas Kaufmann as Andrea Chénier is the star tenor everyone has paid to see and hear, and he delivered. At times sweet, strong, dramatic, innocent and idealist. Believably potentially carnal and equally believably never having known love. His duets thrilling in the way only Italian opera delivers. Giondano was a successor to Verdi but signed to a rival publisher to Puccini’s; he gives us but one or two big numbers in each act but they are magnificent.

Eva-Maria Westbroek as Maddalena de Coigny gives us both fantastic singing and a believable partner for Andrea Chénier. Željko Lučić as Carlo Gérard and Denyce Graves as Bersi were equally fantastic, with Antonio Pappano conducting. This looked to have been a dream casting.

David McVicar’s production designs are heavily symmetric, seemingly the old order trying to contain the new disorder. Not quite as many candles as at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse but many many candles: from dozens of candles in candelabras in the Act 1 ballroom to a single candle in the Act 4 prison. They seemed symbolise the revolution, with the actual lighting of candles indicating stoking the fires of revolution. Partly in consequence, the production lighting uses follow-spots which have been out of vogue recently but worked well in the relatively traditional stage scenery.

Act 3 starts with what is essentially an attempted rape scene before a revolutionary court-room drama, Željko Lučić as Carlo Gérard gave us both fantastic singing and a creepy performance.

Act 4 in the prison gives us the death duet of Andrea Chénier and Maddalena de Coigny before together they each face the guillotine. Jonas Kaufmann and Eva-Maria Westbroek completely overwhelmed with their performances: spine tingling, wet eyes, hushed and tense audience. Their Act 4 duet brings the opera to a thrilling, chilling conclusion, it’s both musically dissonant and dramatically intense.

Tonight’s singing was spectacular and brought unusually vigorous and warm acclamation from the Covent Garden audience. I counted six full calls for the whole cast in addition to individual calls.

The varied accents for the Italian libretto were often a bit strange but understanding the Italian wasn’t necessary to follow the plot. Surtitles are a huge benefit for a meaningfully complex story like this but were unknown and limited my understanding when I last saw Andrea Chénier at Covent Garden in February 1984 with Jose Carreras as Chenier in only the twelfth ever performance at Covent Garden, his predecessors were Zanatello, Caruso, Lauri-Volpi and Gigli.  Italian opera does have something to say on the French Revolution, in amongst the stellar singing there’s a portrayal of the human dilemmas of the revolution and the displaced workers. And a satirical cameo of the French revolutionary idealists giving their gold and silver to the revolution just as meekly as the lambs to the guillotine.

Thinking of the Royal Opera productions this season, Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier wasn’t an opera censored for fear of insurrection despite being explicitly about a revolution, unlike Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera, which doesn’t mention a revolution but which was censored for fear that it would trigger regicide. But there’s a sense that as the music of Tristan pioneered atonality, the musical dissonances of Andrea Chénier laid the way for musical theatre and eventually Sondheim. Looking at operatic heroines, and remembering that Andrea Chénier was premiered forty years earlier than Puccini’s Turandot but Maddalena is the sun to Turandot’s icy moon both musically and dramatically.

There is the obvious but delicious irony of a particularly well-heeled London audience coming to see a play about the French revolution and the overturning of the bourgeoisie, and apparently enjoying the show without being particularly aware of the irony. Long may it continue!

Andrea Chénier

Music - Umberto Giordano
Libretto - Luigi Illica
Director - David McVicar
Set design - Robert Jones
Costume designs - Jenny Tiramani
Lighting design - Adam Silverman
Movement - Andrew George

Conductor - Antonio Pappano
Orchestra - Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Andrea Chénier - Jonas Kaufmann
Maddalena de Coigny - Eva-Maria Westbroek
Carlo Gérard - Željko Lučić
Bersi - Denyce Graves
Madelon - Elena Zilio
Contessa de Coigny - Rosalind Plowright
Roucher - Roland Wood
Pietro Fléville - Peter Coleman-Wright
Fouquier-Tinville - Eddie Wade
Mathieu - Adrian Clarke
The Incredibile - Carlo Bosi
Abbé - Peter Hoare
Schmidt - Jeremy White
Major Domo - John Cunningham
Dumas - Yuriy Yurchuk
Chorus - Royal Opera Chorus
Concert Master - Peter Manning