The main focus of Andrea Chénier is on the real-life poet of the title, presented to us in a credible blending of fact and fiction in the midst of the French Revolution during which he was eventually guillotined as a dissident. This means that the hungry masses – commonly known to historians as Les Miserables – must make their presence felt as soon as possible. In one of the most memorable moments of this production, they do this in Act I: the Chorus of Opera North is heard but not seen, behind the curtains made from innumerable tiny chain links which border the Contessa di Coigny’s party. Just their supplicating hands poke through.

Andrea Chénier (Rafael Rojas) is an embarrassment for her as well: when asked by the mischievous Maddalena di Coigny (Annemarie Kremer), his future lover, to improvise a poem, he comes out with patriotic verses sympathising with the downtrodden and accusing the aristocratic guests of callous self-interest. For the audience, this is the point where everything really starts to come alive, when Rojas fills the stage with a breathtaking “Un di all’azzurro spazio”, avoiding the excesses sometimes associated with verismo arias, never sacrificing legato, topmost notes sweet, pure and passionate, as indeed they were in his appearance on the same stage two years ago in Puccini’s La fanciulla del West as the bandit Ramerrez. He dominates throughout, apparently effortlessly.

Giordano was wise to choose a relatively realistic story of social upheaval set a century before its first production, which could be spiced with romantic love and violence while still addressing issues of inequality and corruption. Unsurprisingly, some Italians on the first night at La Scala in 1896 made strong connections with the present day, just as we can: there are plenty of parallels with the world of 2016, which should produce shudders. The atmosphere of a modern revolution which produces extremists and which fatally consumes its own militants is well conveyed here by the set, which is spartan and in gloomy shades, equipped with multi-purpose steps, mobile seating stands and sometimes just wide spaces, and by costumes which are either of the period – huge hats and cloaks – or more eclectic (set and costumes by Joanna Parker). I was not sure about the use of same chain-link material which was used in the curtains being used for coats for the servants in Act I, though I did appreciate the symbolism. 

I liked the covers on the programme, which has images of pages of the journal L’ami du people stained with the blood of Marat, murdered in 1793, but what makes this opera so modern in feel is its often-mentioned cinematographic quality, the way we see the progress of events in four ‘snapshots’ from the initial party in Act I where the Contessa (a splendid Fiona Kimm) provides the nobles with a dance by fantasy shepherdesses to a street café at the height of the Terror to a Revolutionary Tribunal to a prison.

The Orchestra of Opera North (efficiently conducted by Oliver von Dohnányi) is adept at synchronizing stage action with sounds and impressively in control of the textures, which are significantly cinematic here. Giordano would have been much in demand in Hollywood, a point made clear in the final scene of Act IV when Andrea and Maddalena walk slowly to the back of a bare stage to their execution as if they are Heathcliff and Cathy on the moors in a film of Wuthering Heights after a wonderful delivery of the duet “Vicino a te s’acquesta” which is given all the romantic intensity it requires. For me, though, the key part of the second half was in Act III when Kremer sang “La mamma morta”. Her piano rendition was truly moving, as she sang of her mother’s death.

The Chorus (Chorus master Martin Pickard) proved its versatility once again, becoming a terrifying mob of citizens and citizenesses (the translated word on the surtitles) at the drop of a revolutionary cap, Dean Robinson as Fouquier-Tinville is convincingly bloodcurdling as he overrides the evidence to demand death sentences, the direction by Annabel Arden is crisp and the reading of extracts from the real Chénier’s modern-sounding poetry in English is a good idea. Today, he could be a persecuted blogger I suppose. It helps to give us that feeling that we are learning from history as well as enjoying a show which is full of modern relevance. Andrea Chénier is a fine start to Opera North’s new season.