Umberto Giordano is mostly known to those familiar with the verismo movement. He belongs to that illustrious group of Italian composers who, towards the end of the 19th century, while moving on from the ideals of Romanticism, had attempted to portray the real life problems of real people. Andrea Chénier was Opera Australia’s offering in a concert performance to its Sydney (and later Melbourne) audiences.

Pinchas Steinberg and Jonas Kaufmann © Keith Saunders
Pinchas Steinberg and Jonas Kaufmann
© Keith Saunders

This opera is less often performed in our century, perhaps because it has fewer rousing melodies and memorable emotional whirlwinds than, for example, Puccini’s Tosca (written only a few years later), to which otherwise it bears some striking resemblance. The libretto to both operas was written by Luigi Illica, which perhaps accounts for a substantial chunk of the story to be found with minor alterations in both operas. It is about the triangle of protagonists: the brutal policeman/revolutionary who demands sexual favours of the celebrated/much liked lover of the artist (poet in Chénier, painter in Tosca), in return for him to be saved from execution. He will not be saved, and his lover dies with him. Curtain.

Following the similarly unstaged, yet memorably successful, performances of Parsifal in 2017, it made perfect sense for OA to reinvite that production’s conductor, Pinchas Steinberg, and its eponymous protagonist, Jonas Kaufmann (this time, as Chénier) to participate. The stellar cast was further strengthened by Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek and French baritone, Ludovic Tézier, along with some outstanding Australian voices.

The Sydney performances took place in the Concert Hall of the Opera House, which is soon to be closed for two years of extensive renovations. They provided a splendid opportunity for OA’s resident orchestra to perform on stage, rather than in the pit, an opportunity they obviously enjoyed. The septuagenarian Steinberg’s movements radiated an energy far beyond what one might expect at his age. The players and the excellent Opera Australia Chorus followed his no-nonsense gestures with gusto and the expression of their joint rubato never felt excessive or artificial. The enjoyment of the naturally flowing tempi, always conscious of the Italian diction and the dramatic situation, made the occasional problems of intonation among the woodwinds or minor ensemble issues in the upper strings easy to forget.

Kaufmann sang the title role with evident ease. He was suitably hesitant at the beginning of his “Improvviso” before – as any young and talented poet would be when facing a challenge – growing with confidence in his art. His other two arias were equally expressive, but what offered even more evidence of his artistry were his sensitive duets (in particular, the death-defying final one, “Vicino a te”) with Westbroek, singing the part of his lover of aristocratic descent, Maddalena. The chemistry between these two artists was genuine and pleasing to observe; after all, they had already performed these roles to critical acclaim at Covent Garden in 2015.

Ludovic Tézier, Pinchas Steinberg, Eva-Maria Westbroek and Jonas Kaufmann © Keith Saunders
Ludovic Tézier, Pinchas Steinberg, Eva-Maria Westbroek and Jonas Kaufmann
© Keith Saunders

In the opera’s best-known aria, “La mamma morta”, it was Westbroek’s chance to tenderly portray the heart broken Maddalena. Despite the shine fading on some of her high notes, Westbroek’s cultured technique and empathy with her part still offered a moving experience. Tézier's Carlo Gérard sounded menacing and ruthless, helped by his powerful baritone voice. The expression of his vocal transformation in front of our eyes, from his initial role of lowly servant to a powerful figure during the French Revolution, was truly impressive.

The treatment of the voices gave some reason for concern, though. While subtle amplification in the same building’s Opera Theatre seems to be a necessity to overcome its acoustic problems, there was hardly any need for that in the Concert Hall. The voices appeared to be electronically strengthened most of the time and this often undermined the natural balance between voices and orchestra.

In the smaller roles, Anna Dowsley was captivating in her brief appearance as Madelon, with simple but effective singing and subtle body movements. Dominica Matthews’ Comtesse de Coigny and Sian Sharp’s Bersi added colour and background to the story. Benjamin Rasheed’s smallish but fine voice was fitting to his role as Incroyable. The other male supporting voices assisted the success of the evening with always reliable clarity and professionalism.


****1