There’s a strange thing about Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier: the opera has a reputation as a star tenor vehicle, but the most powerful part of the opera by far is Act 3, when the leading man is absent and we see a near-rape scene between the baritone (who else?) Carlo Gérard and the prima donna, Maddalena di Coigny – he a senior official in the French Revolution, she the daughter of the aristocratic family where he was once a servant. It’s Act 2 of Tosca with a twist – Gérard is a man of great humanity who is ultimately able to master his passions and do the right thing.

Luca Salsi (Carlo Gérard) and Anja Harteros (Maddalena) © Wilfried Hösl
Luca Salsi (Carlo Gérard) and Anja Harteros (Maddalena)
© Wilfried Hösl

Luca Salsi and Anja Harteros nailed it in the middle. Setting the scene with “Un dì m’era di gioia”, in which Gérard is riven with doubt over where the revolution is taking both France and himself, Salsi brilliantly portrayed a man who possesses huge strength but no longer knows how to direct it, the raw power of his baritone tempered by beauty of timbre. Harteros then gave a barnstorming “La mamma morta”, telling how her mother died protecting her at the door of her bedroom as the mob closed in – the irony all the more bitter since the mother is a profoundly unsympathetic character. Harteros’ voice has it all: a high register smooth and sweet as a master patissier’s whipped cream, complete control over the shape of every phrase, a slight quaver of vibrato to intensify a key syllable and – most important of all – total commitment to the text and to her character. The end of the aria “Prendilo, dunque! Io son già morta cosa!” (“Take my body, then – I am already a dead thing”) was genuinely shocking, a moment to make your hair stand on end.

Anja Harteros (Maddalena di Coigny) and Jonas Kaufmann (Andrea Chénier) © Wilfried Hösl
Anja Harteros (Maddalena di Coigny) and Jonas Kaufmann (Andrea Chénier)
© Wilfried Hösl

The occupant of the “star tenor” vehicle was the current starriest of all, Jonas Kaufmann. His voice is continuing to recover: if he was less than perfectly convincing in this role in March, he is now back to something close to his best. The qualities of his voice –  the dark timbre and the smooth delivery – are well-aired; what’s been in question is his ability to step on the accelerator and generate some excitement. Last night, he started more strongly than he often does, making an impact in Act 1 when Chénier kicks up a scandal by daring to mention the starving masses in polite company. A Kaufmann-Harteros duet is a thing to savour, and their grand duet in Act 2 did not disappoint: Kaufmann’s trademark crescendo-from-ppp blending wonderfully into the exquisite softness of a Harteros note held at perfect stability. His aria in the Act 4 trial scene, “Sì, fui soldato”, was powerful and full of conviction.

Andrea Chénier has a large supporting cast, all of it strong in this production: I’ll give particular nods to Elena Zilio’s Madelon – as we’ve remarked before, Zilio does the aged, grieving mother character superbly – and Andrea Borghini as Chénier’s friend Roucher. All the singers were helped by Omer Meir Wellber’s conducting, with unerring choices of tempi, perfect control of co-ordination and balance between singers and orchestra, and the ability to extract great character from the music in the passages where the orchestra could be let off the leash.

Act 1 at the de Coigny home © Wilfried Hösl
Act 1 at the de Coigny home
© Wilfried Hösl

Philipp Stöltzl and Heike Vollmer’s historically accurate sets are impressive for their execution if nothing else: we see not just a single doll’s house set, but a whole series of doll’s houses which shift and transform so that we are always seeing simultaneous views of what is happening to different people in different places. In Act 1, therefore, as the Coignys welcome their guests, we see the fomenting of discord amongst the servants downstairs, in Act 2, we see both the crowd outside the revolutionary headquarters and the happenings in the various offices, and so on. It all lends a great air of realism to proceedings (with the exception of Mathieu’s unexplained Jack-the-joker make-up), but it can become wearing, since your eye is continually being drawn away from the main action – in one case, extremely so since Kaufmann and Harteros’ faces were in shadow as they sang one of their big duets.

By the interval, I’d been enjoying the music. By the end of the opera, I was completely bound up in the drama: this production makes a strong case for Andrea Chénier’s continued presence in the repertoire.

****1