Andrea Chénier

Umberto Giordano

Opera North

Leeds Grand Theatre

From 19 January 2016 to 24 February 2016

Review by Mark Smith

Umberto Giordano is not the best known opera composer, nor Andrea Chénier a particularly well-known piece to the uninitiated such as me, but it takes as its background a somewhat familiar setting: the events of the French Revolution.

Springing from the real-life story of Chénier, a French poet imprisoned and executed under the Terror that came after the 1789 Revolution, it’s a semi-realist tale of passion and bitter ironies amongst the barricades. Opera North provides a powerful and clear production which enables these stories—and Giordano’s music—to take flight.

This music, along with the libretto by Luigi Illica, encompasses a sweeping range of times, influences and locations, illustrating some of the causes and complications of the French Revolution. So the setting for the first act is a sumptuous country house in which the Contessa di Coigny (Fiona Kimm) is preparing for a society party. Or rather, her servants are, including the disgruntled Carlo Gérard (Robert Hayward). He predicts—and later participates in—the downfall of the moneyed ruling classes.

This historical observation is tied into the driving story of a love triangle between Gérard, di Coigny’s daughter Maddalena (Annemarie Kremer) and Chénier himself (Rafael Rojas). Once the poet arrives at the party, the opera’s intertwined themes of love, patriotism and sincerity come to the fore.

Rojas’s delivery of the aria “Un dì all’azzurro spazio” is particularly stirring and powerful. In rebuke to Maddalena’s teasing about the poet’s inevitable tendency to talk about love, Chénier responds with ferocity that he loves the natural world intensely, spiritually, and feels compassion for the poor in a way that she and the privileged classes cannot understand. Rojas brings a spark to the production which drives the action forward, and in a strong ensemble he nonetheless stands out, as befits the charismatic lead character.

The orchestra, conducted by Oliver von Dohnányi, plays with superb control of light and shade, swelling to underpin the impassioned declarations of love, while also teasing out the more understated motifs, which incorporate echoes of revolutionary song or suggestions of the dances beloved in the upper-class milieu.

Annabel Arden’s assured direction gives space to the performers to deliver key arias simply and clearly, while also reinforcing the ironies and imagery of the opera. Rojas, Kremer and Hayward all provide moments of thrilling solo in the first act. At other times, the staging also provides resonant group effects. One such memorable image occurs as the voices of the poor are heard breaking into the sounds of the gavotte with which the aristocratic guests seek to distract themselves.

Arden’s staging, with unfussy and apt set and costume design by Joanna Parker, thus provides clarity of storytelling and some stark, intense images. Combining with Peter Mumford’s flexible and impressive lighting design and Dick Straker’s projections, the design makes use of mobile structures and elegantly shimmering curtains of chains to provide height, depth and variety through the opera’s increasingly grubby settings. Only in the final act, when Chénier finds himself incarcerated in the St Lazare Prison, do they use the full expanse of the (almost) empty space.

In the interim, these resources—and the not inconsiderable presence of a massed chorus firing on all cylinders—are put to excellent use in depicting the progression of the Revolution, from triumphant dismissal of the ruling class to infighting, fatigue and suspicion.

The projections, like the production as a whole, become less and less glossy, dingier and more bespattered, as the pious hypocrisies of the opening act are challenged, fought, and finally superseded.

For some, they are only replaced with a paranoia and cynicism which seems remarkably timely: “Traitor to the country?” Gérard observes while preparing to denounce Chénier. “It’s an old one but the public still swallows it.” For a few, though, these are vanquished by a purity which, as Chénier and Maddalena show, can only be realised through love.