Opera + Classical Music Reviews

Andrea Chénier @ Opera Holland Park, London

22, 26, 28, 30 July; 1, 3, 5 August 2005

Opera Holland Park

Opera Holland Park (Photo: Sam Smith)

As well as improving the quality of the performers they engage, as I mentioned in connection with Eugene Onegin, Opera Holland Park has also rejuvenated its repertoire in the last few years to include several neglected masterpieces by familiar (Verdi, Puccini) and less familiar (Cilea, Giordano) composers of the mid to late romantic period. This time it’s the turn of Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, receiving a rare but welcome staging in this country.

The opera’s libretto is by Luigi Illica, better known as the librettist of Puccini’s La bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly, and the flavour of these works is vividly apparent in the dramaturgy of Andrea Chénier. For instance, the scene in Act III when Gérard, a revolutionary leader, blackmails the aristocrat Maddalena into sleeping with him in return for saving her lover, the poet Andrea Chénier, reeks of the second act Tosca/Scarpia scene in Puccini’s opera.

The Café Hottot scene recalls the Café Momus act of La bohème, and the setting of the period of the French Revolution is the same as that of Tosca. James Naughtie’s programme note expresses surprise that an opera in the so-called verismo style of late nineteenth-century Italian stage works should be set in such a historical period. In fact, it was the concise, realistic delivery of the text and the fluidity of the music which were most important to this school of composers, and the Revolution’s background of terror and bloodshed became extremely popular with them.

Giordano’s score is more than worthy of revival, generally moving at a fast pace and laden with big arias such as Chénier’s Act I L’improvviso and Maddalena’s La mamma morta (the latter mirroring the dramatic function and impact of Tosca’s Vissi d’arte). Act I uses the Verdian device of banal dance music as a foil to inner turmoil, and the tragic conclusion can be extremely moving, as it was in this performance, involving Maddalena’s decision to join Chénier at his execution at the guillotine so they can be united in death. Clearly there is much to enjoy, and no-one with an interest in opera of this period will want to miss the opportunity of seeing this production.

The company made an excellent scoop in engaging the leading tenor John Hudson to play the title role. His reputation for playing big tenor roles at ENO over the years can only be enhanced by this performance (sung in Italian). It’s nice to hear such unforced, well-phrased and genuinely Italianate singing, rare in a non-native singer, and Hudson gave plenty of power from the start. He remains a wooden actor, unfortunately, though it doesn’t particularly matter in this character of a shy poet, and his was the stand-out performance.

More than chilly weather doesn’t help singers in this open-sided theatre/tent, and Katarina Jovanovic’s singing of Maddalena’s music in the first half bordered on the excruciating. However, she recovered amazingly well for her Act III aria, sung lying on the floor in the manner of Tosca, and her closing duet with Hudson provided a moving apotheosis of the love duet.

The smaller roles were more even than in Eugene Onegin, ranging from Carole Wilson’s full-toned Countess/Madelon to Olafur Sigurdarson’s brilliant expression of the dilemmas of Gérard. In general, however, the evening was less engaging, with distractingly clunky scene changes (Peter Rice was the designer); Martin Lloyd-Evans was credited as director, but I could perceive no element of direction in any way. Most disappointing of all was Peter Robinson’s conducting, which lacked rapport with either singers or orchestra (who nevertheless played with energy).

Yet the quality of the work was apparent throughout most of the evening, and despite these reservations it’s still worth taking this chance to hear the music of an underrated and rarely played composer.

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Andrea Chénier @ Opera Holland Park, London