Giordano Andrea Chénier Bayerische Staatsoper Recordings

Umberto Giordano (1867-1948)
Andrea Chénier (1896)
Historical drama in four acts with a libretto by Luigi Illica
Jonas Kaufmann (Andrea Chénier), George Petean (Carlo Gérard), Anja Harteros (Maddalena di Coigny), Bayerisches Staatsorchester, Bayerisches Staatsopernchor/Marco Armiliato, Philipp Stölzl (stage direction)
rec. live, December 2017, Bayerisches Staatsoper, Munich, Germany
Reviewed in surround sound
Bayerische Staatsoper Recordings BSOREC2004 Blu-ray [135]

Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier seems still to be uncertain of reputation, and even of genre. It is often described as a key work of the verismo (naturalistic) style begun in late 19th-century Italy. It has some of the melodramatic, highly emotional style of verismo. There are big, self-revealing, even self-lacerating solos for each of the three principals, and it features mostly lower-class characters rather than monarchs and aristocrats, or Wagner’s mythical archetypes, but The work is indebted to a former type found often in French grand opera: it is, as Giordano’s title says, a historical drama. André Chénier was a real-life poet caught up in the French Revolution. The events and characters of the Revolution form the backdrop, and indeed the dramatic conflict of class struggle, are crucial to this work.

It follows that a production, especially one for a library of operas on video, should ideally present that context in its staging and design. Since its premiere in 1896, the work has been produced many times around the operatic world, and no doubt some of those productions changed its era and context. But even Gérard’s final line – Da Robespierre ancora! (to Robespierre once more), making a last attempt to get Chénier’s death sentence repealed – will sound odd if that name means nothing in a production’s context.

This very fine 2017 production at Munich’s Nationaltheater was a double debut. It was the first time Giordano’s opera had ever been shown there (perhaps held back by that reputational uncertainty), and the first time distinguished film, play and opera director Philipp Stölze had mounted a production for the Bayerische Staatsoper.

Stölze said of his Munich Andrea Chénier: ‘My ideas emerge from the piece itself. I work outwards from the inside. Any director needs to find something to latch on to in history. I want to narrate what’s there. I don’t need to invent anything. The characters function as they do because they act within fixed historical images.’ So contextually you are in safe hands here.

The sets thus present revolutionary Paris of the 1790s, from an aristocratic household in Act One (the servant class visible in the space below stairs), up to a guillotine for the last moments. The ‘split-screen’ effects of the sets show different levels and distinct spaces for interrelated episodes of the action. That has the benefit of keeping the drama clear and well-articulated.

Alongside the three leads, the opera has quite a large cast of named characters. The director and his costume designer Anke Winkler individualise them effectively. In the Revolution, some of generic names actually referenced their appearance, as in l’incroyable or une merveilleuse, and their costumes look well-researched. Well, the sans-culottes character Mathieu has grotesque facial make-up – exactly that of The Joker in the Batman movie – but this is the only non-historical touch. Former servant Gérard in Act Two assumes a role for the ‘Revolutionary Tribunal’. (Presumably, since Robespierre is his master, this is the historical body with the sinister name ‘Committee for Public Safety’.) It is not clear that he would have worn a military uniform for that role, but it helps him stand out and look like an important official, which he now is.

The cast is very strong. Jonas Kaufmann’s Chénier is a star turn of course, familiar from the fine filmed Covent Garden production of 2015. The tessitura of the part is well-suited to the tenor’s range and his baritonal sound. He is in good voice here, with top notes of ringing certainty. There are several affecting moments in his love music where he deploys his honeyed mezza-voceUn dì all’azzurro spazio, the Act One Improvviso – is an admirable showpiece for tenors, and Kaufmann has the measure of its progress towards increasing passion and eloquence. This and Chénier’s other set pieces are still staples of tenor recital discs. No wonder this was the favourite role of Beniamino Gigli.

Kaufmann’s Chénier has a very fine partner in Maddalena sung by soprano Anja Harteros. The Bayerisches Staatsoper describes them as ‘the operatic dream couple since they appeared together in Lohengrin in 2009 […] This is the fourth time that they have worked together on a new production in Munich.’ Harteros produces a gleaming sound, soaring and incisive in Vicino a te, her final duet with Chénier. She is poignant in La mamma morta, which recalls the moment in her childhood when the Revolution burst into her privileged home. ‘They killed my mother […] she died saving me’. This produced the biggest ovation of the night, the applause loud and very long.

But Andrea Chénier has three great roles, each in need of a fine singing actor. As Gérard, George Petean completes this trio of equally strong leads. The Romanian baritone has a superb voice, and effortless reach into the top of his range. Act Three dramatically belongs to Gérard. Nemico della Patria, his big moment of conflict and despair, is a stirring piece of singing. Gérard recognises that he is ‘a servant now as always […] I have but changed masters’. His character goes on a demanding journey, and his very involving vocal acting makes him as sympathetic a character as the two lovers destined for the guillotine. The booklet’s interview with the director even suggests that Gérard is really the main character of the opera.

Among the supporting acts, Rachael Wilson’s Bersi stands out, along with Kevin Connors’ L’Incredibile. Both sing well and are instrumental in the plot. They interact well with the other singers and are convincing in their own right. There has clearly been fruitful collaboration with the director on character and movement. The Kirov-trained veteran mezzo-soprano Larissa Diadkova made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1996 as the aged Madelon. She reprises that role here to wonderful effect. The opera offers no scene more moving than that in which Madelon offers her grandson, her only remaining family member, to the national cause. But then all the smaller, but not trivial, roles are convincingly acted and sung. This is a real ensemble success in terms of performance, and therefore of casting.

The Bavarian State Orchestra, and the very involved Revolutionary crowd impersonated by the Bavarian State Opera Chorus, play and sing excellently. Conductor Marco Armiliato marshals these substantial forces with skill. He looks after his singers in orchestrally louder moments, and really believes in this opera. The filming serves the production well. It would have been interesting to have an early shot showing the entire set in each act, when so much time has to be given only to one section or another of those ‘split screens’.

The surround sound is fine, well balanced and atmospheric. The booklet is fuller than some, with track listing, synopsis, interview with the director, all in English and German. The disc has no extras.

This release has a close rival in the excellent Warner Classics version of 2015 from London’s Covent Garden, also with Kaufmann’s Chénier, superbly conducted by Antonio Pappano (review); that disc seems elusive currently. But it is hard to imagine an account significantly superior to this Munich offering for a work that is here shown to be better than its reputation.

Roy Westbrook

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Other cast and production staff
Rachael Wilson (Bersi)
Helena Zubanovich (La Contessa di Coigny)
Larissa Diadkova (Madelon)
Andrea Borghini (Roucher)
Johannes Kammler (Pierre Fleville)
Christian Rieger (Fouquier-Tinville)
Tim Kuypers (Mathieu)
Ulrich Ress (L’Abate)
Kevin Connors (L’Incredible)
Callum Thorpe (Il Maestro di casa/Schmidt)
Alexander Milev (Dumas)

Set design: Philipp Stölzl, Heike Vollmer
Costume design: Anke Winkler
Lighting design: Michael Bauer
Video Director: Brian Large

Video details
Filmed in HD
Format 16:9
Sound formats, PCM stereo and DTS MA 5.11
Subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, Japanese, Korean