In Seville, you don’t have to look far to stumble upon visceral episodes in European history. The Teatro de la Maestranza is a short walk from Carmen’s cigarette factory on the Avenida del Cid – the site where heretics were burnt to death by the feared Spanish Inquisition – headquartered just across the river Guadalquivir. Parallels are striking with Umberto Giordano’s verismo opera Andrea Chénier, set in the violent French Revolution, another slice of turbulent times following the tragic story of the poet sentenced to death by the Revolutionary Tribunal with thousands of others. It is a grim story, but Giordano’s lively, heroic music with libretto by the famous Luigi Illica (who wrote La Bohème in the same year) carries it off with style.

Ainhoa Arteta (Maddalena) and Alfred Kim (Andrea Chénier) © Guillermo Mendo
Ainhoa Arteta (Maddalena) and Alfred Kim (Andrea Chénier)
© Guillermo Mendo

Alfonso Romero Mora’s lavish joint production with Bilbao Opera and the Festival Castell de Peralada arrived in Seville, its opulently-costumed scenes of fading grandeur making a striking impression. Sets by Ricardo Sánchez Cuerda on a fixed sloping corner, built on flattened books, reveal more than they seem at first: cracks in the chandeliered ballroom ceiling and a blue sofa that needs a wedge to keep it from wobbling. The perspectives were restless, leading us beyond the main area and into the increasingly battered architectural fragments, embodying the downfall of the aristocracy – painterly lighting by Félix Garma capturing the edge of dangerous unpredictability.

The busy opening ballroom scene, as the brusque Countess de Coigny prepares for a party, is full of illuminating detail, her daughter Maddalena pulling faces when told to dress up properly. The chief servant Carlo Gérard, sensing change in the air as the Abbé brings bad political news from Paris, emboldened by party guest Andrea Chénier’s tribute to love and the selfishness of the aristocracy is prompted to walk out of the household as the local poor riff-raff invade the wigged gavotte dancers. Five years on, Chénier and his friend Roucher are in a Parisian street café in the Reign of Terror as clothes and wigs from the dispatched aristocracy pile up and fall from the sky. It is dangerous times and Chénier is under suspicion as Maddalena has been writing to him secretly, but Gérard, who is now leading a parade which includes Robespierre, asks an incroyable spy to watch Chénier closely. Maddalena arrives in peasant clothes and sings a passionate duet with Chénier, but she is forced to flee as Chénier turns on Gérard, wounding him. The Revolutionary Tribunal under Fouquier-Tinville is busy condemning prisoners from the tricolore draped table. Chénier is on the list, and although he defends his honour and is supported by Gérard, he is eventually sentenced to death at dawn. In the final scene, Maddalena takes the place of a condemned woman and they face death together.

Alfred Kim (Andrea Chénier) © Guillermo Mendo
Alfred Kim (Andrea Chénier)
© Guillermo Mendo

Giordano’s opera with a large cast requires three big voices to make it work effectively, and this production had strong principals. Juan Jesús Rodriguez’s broad baritone was a splendid Gérard, heartfelt in his big aria “Nemico della patria”, leaving his post in the Coigny household, torn between his secret love for Maddalena and his admiration for Chénier. Spanish soprano Ainhoa Arteta as the blonde Maddalena was never less than impressive, owning the stage and rising to the challenge of “La Mamma Morta” with extraordinary levels of vocal control as she described how her mother sacrificed her own life letting her escape. South Korean tenor Alfred Kim as Chénier had a huge voice which he let loose with abandon, pulling out reserve to top out his arias “Un dì all'azzurro spazio” and “Come un bel dì di maggio”. The verismo style dictates some “stand and deliver” moments, but the three big voices here made these memorable.

<i>Andrea Chénier</i> at the Teatro de la Maestranza © Guillermo Mendo
Andrea Chénier at the Teatro de la Maestranza
© Guillermo Mendo

The smaller parts were drawn in detail. Marina Pinchuck was an unlovable Countess, but doubling as the ill Madelon in a heartrending scene offering her grandson to be part of the Revolution. Fernando Latorre’s solid bass as Roucher was a warm faithful companion to Chénier throughout, and tenor Moisés Marín a thoroughly nasty incroyable spy, his red necktie lurking in the shadows. Cristian Díaz gave a wonderful performance as a rather loopy Master of the household, his sonorous bass doubling as the court president Dumas. There was wonderful detail everywhere: I loved the blindfolded harpist flouncing off in disgust.

Pedro Halffter conducted the Real Orquesta Sinfónica de Sevilla with gusto while giving the singers room to perform. With violins placed left and right hard up to the front of the deep pit there was a slightly odd balance, but outstanding solos from cor anglais and cello and suitably hefty brass. The busily directed chorus of peasants under Íñigo Sampil sang thrillingly, an essential final piece in this rather neglected but larger than life opera.

****1