The Met’s revival of Giordano’s tenor showcase potboiler Andrea Chénier is its first in seven years. It is an opera that can seem more a series of scenes than a dramatic whole and it relies on exciting, charismatic luminaries to hold it together and keep the interest high. The last revival lacked Italian style and passion from both star singers. The production was first presented in 1996, mounted for Luciano Pavarotti and Aprile Millo both in their late prime, dramatically frozen, but vocally and stylistically exciting. The new duo for this revival is Marcelo Álvarez and Patricia Racette.
Hubert Monloup’s huge sets have the de Coignys’ ballroom furnished only with a couch and chair, with the back of the stage a huge, gold-encrusted mirror, tilted forward, skewing the aristocrats’ appearances in their all-gold costumes and mammoth periwigs: something is undeniably about to fall. The giant marble pillars and arches of the Cours-la-Reine of Act II are intimidating, and there are a few café chairs placed stage left. Originally, these were useful for Pavarotti, who could not stand for long periods, but Nicolas Joël’s staging stubbornly remains the same, keeping Mr Álvarez passively seated for half the act. The final scene takes place among broken pieces of wood, with a huge frame at the rear that used to exhibit the shadow of the guillotine. It is now empty. There were not many ideas at work throughout; the word “workaday” comes to mind.
Álvarez is a known quantity, and a fine one at that. He is one of the best all-purpose tenors around, rarely displeasing as the Duke of Mantua, Riccardo in Ballo, Don José, Cavaradossi, Rodolfo and others. He was somewhat overparted as Manrico and is similarly as Chénier; the role needs a true spinto, with a voice of breadth, and Álvarez’s handsome, good-sized, still lyric sound did not fill the house. Every note was in place, albeit with no true legato above the staff – B flats and Bs were snatched out of the air – and he sang with great ardor and attention to the text. His true Italianate sound was a pleasure to hear, but one got the feeling that he was working too hard for volume.
Patricia Racette, always an impassioned and sincere artist, did what she could with Maddalena. Coy and sweet in Act I, nervous in Act II, and positively enthralled later, her voice has grown. After a vocally shaky first two acts, she sang most of “La mamma morta” in chest voice – dramatically effective indeed – but it was hard to ignore a distinct, unappealing beat in the high notes. Yet she still convinced. The final duet lacked the visceral effect it can have when two genuinely grand sounds come together.
Željko Lučić, the “go to baritone” for Italian roles at The Met, displayed a dry tone that landed south of pitch early in the evening. Although the voice lacks a true Italian baritone bite, the sort of mahogany sound that projects into the house, he warmed up to his grand Act III aria “Nemico della patria”, eliciting sympathy.
The superb supporting cast highlighted Margaret Lattimore’s noble but insensitive Countess de Coigny, the complicated Bersi of Jennifer Johnson Cano, Tony Stevenson’s corrupt “Incredibile”, Dwayne Croft’s empathetic Roucher and, lastly, debutante Olesya Petrova as the blind, sacrificing widow Madelon, whose third act scene is meant to tickle the audience’s tear glands.
Gianandrea Noseda conducted without undue sentimentality, favoring quick tempi for arias and the interstitial scenes. The Met Orchestra, invariably superb, gave the score a reading worthy of Parsifal, the brass outstanding at the start of the second act – screaming revolution – and with strings warm and caressing for the tender moments. Even the opera’s final moments, which can sound like cats knocking over trash bins, were clear and thrilling. A noble effort of a Chénier, but a Chénier a half size too small.