Love and death are the two basic ingredients of the standard opera plot, and the more tragedy involved from the first to the last, the more likely it is to spur composers to set it to magnificent music. Andrea Chénier is a textbook example of this although it is not anywhere near as popular as La traviata, Carmen or La bohème, and explicably so. Firstly, it is set in the bloodcurdling time of the French Revolution; secondly, a noblewoman (Maddalena di Coigny) choosing to die on the guillotine with her beloved, a betrayed sympathizer of the Revolution (Chénier, arguably the greatest French poet of his generation, was executed only three days before Robespierre), makes for a far less comprehensible story than dying from illness or getting stabbed by your ex-lover.

José Cura as Andrea Chénier © Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
José Cura as Andrea Chénier
© Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn

That said, one of the most popular operas of all time has its title heroine watch the supposedly feigned execution of her lover turn real and kill herself by jumping from the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, and this equally hair-raising finale is only one of quite a few parallels between Tosca and Andrea Chénier, as librettist Luigi Illica was involved in both. Discovering these parallels is one of many good reasons to spend an evening at a performance of Andrea Chénier, a work that is generally considered the highpoint of the verismo style. It can even count as an inspirational source for Puccini, whose masterpiece premièred four years later than Umberto Giordano’s greatest hit from 1896: like Tosca, Maddalena is molested by a baritone, but where Puccini’s heroine sings of having seen art and love before stabbing Scarpia, Maddalena’s aria (“La mamma morta”) about witnessing the murder of her mother and their home burn to ashes changes Carlo Gérard’s plans, if only too late to save the lovers. Also, both operas need a dramatic tenor to sing the showcase arias of the male leads – and therein lies Andrea Chénier’s biggest challenge, or, actually, problem, as Giordano demands even more of his tenor than Puccini does.

For this part, José Cura has found a way to work around vocal shortcomings and hold his notes together. This doesn’t make for a fascinating evening, but a satisfying enough experience when volume and the ability to hit high notes is what matters most to you, as seemed to be the case for the majority of the audience, which rewarded all of Cura’s arias with frenetic applause. I found him rather bearish for a poet, but in “Come un bel dì di Maggio” he opted for a start in a light and un-operatic, almost Lieder-like approach that worked well and didn’t expose his otherwise evident passaggio problems. His partner was Martina Serafin, who cuts a fine figure on stage and has the technique to sing this dramatic part, but her vocal performance lacked the softness and warmth that is desirable for Maddalena as well. On the whole, Marco Vratogna was not very memorable as Gérard, but he impressed with an engaging rendition of “Nemico della patria”. One has heard better of the always likeable Margarita Gritskova than her Bersi (Maddalena’s confidante, who walks the streets to support her mistress), and Thomas Ebenstein’s portrayal of the Incroyable (a spy) was very well acted, but vocally underwhelming. The rest of the many vivid small roles were performed with varying vocal quality that ranged from very enjoyable (Marco Caria as Roucher) to empty (Donna Ellen as Contessa di Coigny).

After a bit of a clunky start from the orchestra, conductor Marco Armiliato elicited an idiomatic Italianate sound and the exact timing of what was going on in the pit as well as on stage was particularly impressive. A little more differentiation would have been welcome for the dynamics although it has to be said that Giordano himself chose to turn on the volume for much of the opera.

Some of Otto Schenk’s stagings still enjoy much popularity with the Viennese, but Andrea Chénier doesn’t count among them (although strictly speaking, this is a production after his original work from 1981). So with the curtains down after the 99th performance, now might be a good occasion to think about something new, especially as Keith Warner’s exemplary production for the 2011 Bregenz festival showed how much potential there is to be uncovered in this opera.