In cricketing terms, Roberto Alagna would be raising his bat triumphantly towards the Covent Garden pavilion. This opening night of Andrea Chénier chalked up the French-Sicilian tenor’s century, his hundredth performance with The Royal Opera. It was in 1992 that Alagna made his house debut in La bohème, shortly followed by an ardent Roméo, where I remember him vaulting the Capulet gates with ease. He's sung many great roles in that time, including a fine Faust, a sensitive Don José and his charming bumpkin of a Nemorino in L’elisir d’amore alongside Aleksandra Kurzak, who later became his wife.

Sondra Radvanovsky (Maddalena di Coigny) and Roberto Alagna (Andrea Chénier)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Alagna’s stage presence endears him to audiences and his singing is as golden and open-hearted as ever, with ringing top notes that rarely feel pushed. Chénier’s Act 1 Improvviso was exactly as passionate as it should be while his poem “Come un bel dì di maggio”, written as he awaits the guillotine in the last act, was heart-stopping. Alagna's Chénier is a true poet. 

Sir David McVicar’s chocolate box period production is gorgeous to behold. Everything is neatly choreographed and in its place. As they light the chandeliers, footmen perform side-steps almost as neatly as the aristocrats dancing their gavottes. (But ballet dancers wouldn't have been on pointe in 1789.) The trouble is, once the old order is overthrown, nothing’s changed. Café Hottot during the Reign of Terror, looks like a vicar’s tea party, pristine and perfectly ordered. It’s hard to believe that any dust is ever allowed to settle on the bust of Marat. The crowd baying for blood at Chénier’s tribunal are strictly on their best behaviour, the Madame Defarge knitters clacking their needles primly. McVicar offers us a picturesque Ladybird Book of the French Revolution. It never feels real.

Sondra Radvanovsky (Maddalena) and Dimitri Platanias (Carlo Gérard)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Marie Lambert has directed this first revival and has her work cut out with a cast where the principals seem stilted. Greek baritone Dimitri Platanias sings Carlo Gérard, the servant who throws off his livery to join the revolution, wonderfully. He has a rich, juicy sound and his monologue “Nemico della patria”, where Gérard pens his indictment of Chénier, is fabulously delivered; but his acting is wooden and his encounter with Sondra Radvanovsky’s Maddalena, where she pleads for Chénier’s life, doesn’t sizzle as fiercely as it should. Radvanovsky’s impressive soprano packs quite a punch as Chénier’s love interest. She hurls herself at the score’s great climaxes thrillingly, but there were some intonation slips and her voice can turn quite tremulous when singing quietly. During “La mamma morta” there was the sense that everything had been very thoroughly prepared, phrases carefully sculpted, but her acting did not move me.

Elena Zilio (Madelon)
© ROH | Catherine Ashmore

Giordano’s opera demands a huge cast and The Royal Opera’s batting order is strong, right down to the tailenders. Elena Zilio’s cameo as Madelon, the old woman who volunteers her grandson to be a soldier, was as poignant as we’ve come to expect from this sensitive singer. David Stout made a firm-voiced, sympathetic Roucher and Carlo Bosi was a slippery Incroyable. Rosalind Plowright, who sang Maddalena opposite José Carreras here in 1984, made an impact as the Countess, while Christine Rice was a sultry-voiced Bersi. Aled Hall catches eye and ear as the Abbé in Act 1, and Adrian Clarke groused well as the sans-culotte, Mathieu.

There was plenty of volatility coming from the pit. Daniel Oren’s frantic stop-start traffic management pulled around the singers’ phrasing, but the fruitiest moments of Giordano’s slice of verismo were suitably ripe and loud.