When was the last time you saw someone holding a sign outside a venue in the hope of securing a ticket to see opera in Melbourne? It’s so rare but that’s exactly what you saw outside Hamer Hall on Tuesday evening. And it certainly wouldn’t have been because they were desperate to see Umberto Giordano’s late 19th century tragic opera, Andrea Chénier, a work often criticised for its thin plot. Indeed, it has its holes but they were more than filled by the splendid musicality on show.
|Ludovic Tézier, Pinchas Steinberg, Eva-Maria Westbroek|
and Jonas Kaufmann
For those familiar with Dutch soprano Eva Marie Westbroek, her appearance alone would have been worth the ticket - her lush tone, expressive depth and character engagement superbly depicting a curious yet vulnerable Maddalena de Coigny. Both Kaufmann and Westbroek are no strangers to the roles, having shared the stage together in David McVicar’s production for Covent Garden. Their chemistry had spark. And then there was the huge pleasure to hear Frenchman Ludovic Tézier bursting forth with remarkably aligned text-to-voice interpretations with lashings of grand, smouldering baritone strength in the role of Carlo Gérard.
The three international imports formed the centrepiece of librettist Luigi Illica’s doomed love triangle loosely based on actual events - Chénier, a poet eventually sent to the guillotine for condemning the post-revolutionary government, Maddalena, a young women of the aristocracy who falls in love with Chénier and raises her hand to join him in death, and Gérard, a servant with romantic thoughts for Maddelena, in the employment of Contessa di Coigny, who turns to revolutionary politician.
|Pinchas Steinberg, and Jonas Kaufmann|
Westbroek was next, imbuing Maddelena’s light-hearted opening aria about the bothersome task women face in dressing up with creamy tones and delightful poise. Then on, Westbroek steered Maddelena through a trajectory that brought out the emotional furnace within, showcasing her vocal dexterity with utter ease and wrapping Act 3’s “La mamma morta” in an achingly glorious shroud of loss and hope as she sings to Gérard.
Portraying Chénier with an oft introspective demeanour, Kaufmann began with a seductive lyrical smoothness followed by surging muscularity in Chénier’s notable Act 1 aria that criticises the aristocracy and authority, “Un dì all’azzurro spazio”. In Act 3’s “Sì fui soldato”, in which Chénier stands before the court, Kaufmann daringly took it all to a cliff edge in a stellar highlight as Chénier accepts death but asks that his honour be kept. Throughout, Kaufmann’s impeccable phrasing, register shifts, expansion of sound from pianissimo to forte and nuanced details added immensely to his performance. With Westbroek in duet, the pair strode a brilliant path as they declared their love in Act 2’s “Ora Soave” and the sheer energy and magnitude of their final declaration of “Viva la morte insiem!” (Long live death together!) brought the evening to a stunning conclusion.
There is no mistaking that the background of their characters’ story is painted with the turmoil of revolution in Giordano’s richly orchestrated music. The passions and volatility within it were demonstrated in compelling style by conductor Pinchas Steinberg who was both considered and earnest in his attention to the singers. Out of the pit and on the stage, the Opera Australia Orchestra looked a marvellous sight, playing with diligence and expertise a score that resonated with vibrancy and acoustic clarity.
From the solid ranks of regular Opera Australia artists, smaller roles were catered for handsomely. Dominica Matthews’ elegant mezzo-soprano and snobbish Contessa di Coigny, Luke Gabbedy’s authoritative baritone and soldierly Mathieu, Sian Sharp’s radiant mezzo-soprano and loyalty as Maddelena’s maid Bersi and Anna Dowsley’s heartbroken but patriotic old Madelon were particularly strong while Benjamin Rasheed’s spying The Incredible could have mustered greater sinisterly breadth. From the side galleries, the Opera Australia Chorus sang with gorgeously calibrated unity in an evening that goes down as the year’s operatic climax in the city.
I hope the outside sign-bearing individuals got a ticket. More so, with the 2020 season announcement fast approaching, I hope Opera Australia can march on forward with this kind of offering again.
Andrea Chénier in Concert
Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne
13th August 2019
Production Photos: Keith Saunders (taken at the Sydney Opera House)