Andrea Chénier is not one of the more widely performed operas, but it remains in the general repertoire. The libretto is not particularly good, and once the music is stripped away, what remains is a relatively uninteresting melodrama. Perhaps I say this because I cannot help but draw comparisons with Georg Büchner’s Dantons Tod, a play with which Andrea Chénier has superficial resemblances. It is not a particularly favourable comparison for the opera. It is really the dramaitic music that carries it through.
Despite the name, the drama hinges on Carlo Gérard, a servant raised to the rank of a high official of the Revolution. His conflicted character is the only one of interest amongst a cast of pantomime heroes, heroines and villains. When this production was first seen at Covent Garden in 2015, with a formidable cast of Jonas Kaufmann, Eva-Maria Westbroek and Željko Lučić in the three primary roles, it was Lučić who stole the show, not only with the quality of his singing, but the venom, cruelty and grandeur he brought to the role.
This revival also has star presence, with Roberto Alagna taking up the title role with American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky as Maddalena and Dimitri Platanias as Gérard. The opening night gave us a mixed bag of singing. Roberto Alagna had a strange evening, sounding brittle and lacking steel in his voice in the first act, then produced singing of the highest quality in the second and third acts, before sounding fragile through act four and recovering again for act five. But it was worth while just to hear the second and third acts, which he sang with extraordinary clarity and focus, and a mellifluousness in his voice which recalled singers of past generations. Sondra Radvanovsky gave a far more even performance, and her top notes were exquisitely executed without hesitation or any sense that anything was being held back. Her voice effortlessly filled the auditorium. If one criticism is to be made, it is that an excess of vibrato in the middle register leads to some passages loosing clarity, and on more than one occasion in duets, her voice seemed ill matched to Alagna’s steely and compact sound.
Tonally Dimitri Platanias’ Gérard is wonderful to listen to, and gave a superb performance, but without the menace to make his character believable. It robs the opera of its most dramatic moments. It is not entirely conceivable, for example, that Platanias’ Gérard might at any point force himself on Maddalena, with any intent, nor that he is part of the machinery of the terror that sent thousands to the guillotine.
The revival itself feels very much like a revival, lacking coherence and freshness, though David McVicar’s production in general holds up well. Perhaps it’s greatest virtue is that it gently allows the music to the tell the story, rather than forcing the drama in any extraneous directions. The evening itself provided excellent individual performances but without any glue to stick it all together.