It’s taken nearly 120 years, but it’s finally happened: Umberto Giordano’s opera Andrea Chénier has finally had its debut at the Bavarian State Opera. With a top class cast, Munich’s National Theatre has distinguished itself with a staging that paints a slice history in loving detail – faithfully following the verismo playbook.

With little departure from historical fact, Andrea Chénier relates the story of the eponymous poet who, on the eve of the French Revolution, would be introduced into the high society of the Ancien Régime, causing a fracas with patriotic speeches while at the same time falling in love with Maddalena di Coigny. After the overthrow of the king, the two meet again, but Maddalena’s former servant Gérard, now one of the revolutionary leaders, desires the beautiful Maddalena for himself and discredits Chénier. In the end, Chénier and Maddalena arrive at the guillotine together, but not before they’ve had the chance to swear undying love to each other, with true operatic kitsch.

However, the clear focus of the evening was neither story, setting or conductor, but Jonas Kaufmann as our hero. After many months of an illness affecting his vocal chords, this was the star tenor’s first return to the Munich stage; the audience’s level of expectation was accordingly high – somewhat too high for Kaufmann to fully live up to. In the trial scene, Kaufmann’s voice was bursting with energy; in the closing duet “Come un bel dì di Maggio”, he convinced with lyrical warmth, but between the two, he lacked colour and fire. For example, even in the very first minutes in his great monologue “Un dì all’azzuro spazio”, he was clearly struggling with the changes, sometimes his tenor sounded almost almost brittle and he was a touch short of volume. It wasn’t a bad performance, but some way off the Kaufmann of old.

Kaufmann seemed to be aware of this himself, and at the curtain calls, he allowed the limelight to fall onto the undisputed star of the evening: Anja Harteros. She immersed herself in the role of Maddalena with every note: sometimes dreamy, sometimes despairing, but always with maximum intensity, great strength and focused high notes. As she sang her great aria “La mamma morta” with inner despair, the audience could hardly bear any more. This was world class singing, plumbing the innermost depths. As Carlo Gérard, baritone Luca Salsi was a great surprise, portraying the violently voiced revolutionary with a voice that was always precise, but filled with rough passion, jealousy and intense rivalry.

Set designer Heike Vollmer built up a historically accurate cross-section of Paris in the year of the revolution: the nobility dancing above, while below, we see the penury of the Third Estate. At the curtain of each scene change, the whole set was pushed to the left or the right and was widened like a case. This musem-like television was technically demanding, made good use of the giant dimensions of the Munich stage and might well have provided a reference to early cinema, except that during the interval, additional leaflets were handed out, resulting much more in the feel of a better school production. In particular, the fine detail of the staging left the soloists little room in which to show off their star quality to maximum effect.

Similar things could be said about the conducting of Omer Meir Wellber. The music of Giordano’s verismo opera should not only be a piece of detail, and Wellber the used the full potential of the orchestral to create mood and to delight in the variety. With charming, and elegant but sometimes thoroughly dramatic, almost aggressive revolutionary sounds, he accentuated the unisono and thus, in the real sense of Verismo, the cacophony of the impression and allowed the soloists, in an opera in which there are so many solo passages, to become merely accessories of the music.

Why Tim Kuypers roamed around the space between the sets, like a kind of Heath Ledger, remains, in the end, unclear. One might have hoped for some more creative ideas to be found than swathing him in a dirty French Flag or, for the role of Mathieu, copying the makeup of the Joker from Batman. But ultimately, that’s all a matter of taste. If you want to see Andrea Chénier staged realistically with an excellent cast and Anja Harteros on outstanding form, Bavarian State Opera is certainly the right place. You might be disappointed if you expect depth of political awareness, but perhaps there are times when magical music and spectacular setting are enough.


Translated from German by David Karlin