Saturday, 25 March 2017

Giordano - Andrea Chénier (Munich, 2017)

Umberto Giordano - Andrea Chénier

Bayerische Staatsoper, 2017

Omer Meir Wellber, Philipp Stölzl, Jonas Kaufmann, Luca Salsi, Anja Harteros, J'Nai Bridges, Doris Soffel, Elena Zilio, Andrea Borghini, Krešimir Stražanac, Christian Rieger, Tim Kuypers, Ulrich Reß, Kevin Conners, Anatoli Sivko, Anatoli Sivko, Kristof Klorek

Staatsoper.TV Live - 18th March 2017

What can a director possibly bring to an opera like Andrea Chénier? Not an awful lot you would think (and David McVicar's recent Royal Opera House production would seem to bear this out) other than making sure that there is fidelity paid to the historical and the personal drama that lies at the heart of it. There's not much room for personal interpretation or modern revisionism in a work that has very specific application to the French Revolution and it shouldn't need any great elaboration or in-depth examination. The situation of three people caught up in its events and trying to follow the path of their hearts provides all the drama and spectacle it needs, with music and arias to match the heightened sentiments. Andrea Chénier is at least always a spectacle and that is a good starting point for Philipp Stölzl's production, but we get much more than that at the Bavarian State Opera.

Regarding himself primarily a filmmaker, even though he has done more notable work in the opera house at Salzburg and the Deutsche Oper, Stölzl's detailed storytelling risks over-complicating a work that is already quite densely and carefully designed. It overlaps and layers contrasting situations of love, revolution and poetry on the same page and at the same level of intensity. A more cautious director might strive for a different balance or a more restrained approach on at least one of those levels, but then it probably wouldn't be entirely Giordano's Andrea Chénier. The work itself, its enduring popularity and continued success stands on its own merits in that respect.

Even then the subject of the opera never seems terribly appealing. The first Act in particular is intense, deeply serious and not a little bleak at the prospect of the social 'reforms' taking place under the law of the Third Estate. It hardly seems like the best place to set a love story, but this is verismo opera and as such it's hard-hitting and unsparing in its approach to the flame of love briefly flaring up in a cold and inhospitable environment. Philipp Stölzl seems intent on making all those layers and complications visible right up there on the stage at all times and almost simultaneously; the servants and common people down below, the aristos above in a huge cross-section of the Château de Coigny.

I recall a similar multi-level approach in Stölzl's Rienzi, but the layering of different lives and underlying realities is also evident in his Parsifal, where the overture played out to a detailed scene of the crucifixion of Christ and the laughter that seals Kundry's fate. It's not a detail that normally needs to be elaborated on in that opera, nor is the backstory described by Gurnemanz usually shown as if there are Stations of the Cross. The director takes such literalism and over-elaboration to new lengths here, but it works. The extraordinary set rolls the building along to reveal new wings, more buildings and more rooms filled with little detailed miniatures that look like scenes from period revolutionary paintings.

The handling of each little scene however is superb, adding to the bigger picture of the opera without diminishing the impact of the main drama. Act II culminates with a superbly choreographed chase through the Paris sewer system where Chénier and Maddalena are pursued by revolutionary soldiers, the intensity of the dramatic staging matched by the delivery of the singing. It does much to enliven the difficult scene-setting first act considerably and set things up for the latter half of the work which provides much more scope to explore the contrasts and contradictions of the revolution, the characters, their beliefs and their personalities.

It's a world of contradictions and Stölzl does well to highlight them. Having Gérard sing of transforming the world and embracing all men with love while we can see Chénier being tortured in a cellar below him is not just a matter of heavy-handed irony, but it actually brings nuance to the contrast between ideals and actions, something that Gérard at this stage probably already recognises. It can certainly come across as heavy-handed when you add a romantic triangle into this, but again, this is another case of ideals not matching actions. The heart is a contradictory thing and love can quickly turn to hate.

For this reason it's also possible to see Gérard as just as important a figure in the opera as Andrea Chénier or Maddalena, or perhaps that is indeed a matter of emphasis and context that can be applied to the opera. Or perhaps it is a side of the opera that can become more meaningful depending on the times we are living in, which proves that Andrea Chénier can be about far more than a tale of the French Revolution, and it doesn't need any modernisation for its more universal meaning to extend beyond the historical events of the past.

The casting in Andrea Chénier can have much to do with where that balance lies and you can hardly say that the Bayerische Staatsoper cut any corners here. Jonas Kaufmann and Anja Harteros are the big attractions and they don't disappoint in either singing or acting performances. It's difficult to pin just how good they are down to one scene, as every moment is entirely in character with few of the traditional operatic mannerisms. It might be better if Kaufmann could hold back a little occasionally, and it might save his voice from further problems, but in the same way as Andrea Chénier wouldn't be Andrea Chénier if it was half-hearted, Kaufmann wouldn't be Kaufmann if he wasn't giving it everything. This is a character that he really believes in however, and you can't fault his commitment, performance or ability.

I haven't always felt that Anja Harteros was right for every role I've seen her in - and Verdi can definitely be a strain on her voice - but there's no question she has the voice for verismo and the acting ability to go with it. Again, it hardly serves to look at any one scene in isolation as this is a performance that grows and develops along with the drama, but you can't ignore her 'La mamma morta' scene. Her reaction to Gérard's advances are superb, the hatred, disgust and disdain mixed with passionate determination is palpable. Stölzl certainly sets up the scene well, not unexpectedly showing the actual dead mother vividly in a movie-like cutaway, but Harteros is more than capable of giving this aria all the poignancy it needs. She even seems to look directly into the camera during the live broadcast and it really feels like one of those 'moments'. She nearly brings the house down.

What most impressed me about the Bayerische Staatsoper's production - and really you have your choice of impressive qualities here - is that not content with having Kaufmann and Harteros, they matched Chénier and Maddalena with an equally impressive Gérard in Luca Salsi. It's by no means a lesser role, and may even be a more complex character than the other two, but giving equal weight to Gérard (in the same way that Stölzl gives equal weight to the smallest detail in each of the scenes) really brings out the true value of the opera. With a Gérard like this you have an impregnable, solid triangle that can support all the tensions of the drama, the politics, the romance and the tragedy.

The Bayerische Staatsoper really are operating at the highest levels of artistry at the moment. Their current live broadcast season at least shows them as one of the best houses in Europe at the moment, and this Andrea Chénier is no exception. It's not a favourite work of mine, but there is no denying its power when it is done well. My only complaint would be that Stölzl's staging is more of a 'big screen' production that would have more impact live than it would on a reduced streamed internet broadcast. I'm sure in the theatre that the orchestral performance would have matched the scale of the production, because it came across clearly even in the live stream. Omer Meir Wellber conducted another powerhouse performance from the Bavarian orchestra that was dynamic, intense and sensitive, faultless in its musical and dramatic pacing, everything flowing towards that devastating conclusion. I'd be reluctant to describe any production as 'definitive' but this is an Andrea Chénier that is as good as it gets.

Links: Bayerische Staatsoper, Staatsoper.TV