Passion on the scaffold
Umberto Giordano’s most successful opera immortalises a worthwhile subject: a poet and political activist guillotined in Robespierre’s terror. But it is not just for the fabulous lyricism of the opera and its tenor title role that one should catch this well-judged, satisfyingly-cast Opera North production, but for the quality and memorable fervour of Luigi Illica’s fine libretto and the intelligent theatricality of Annabel Arden’s well-focused staging, which really works at words and ideas harnessing text and music.
Joanna Parker’s designs serve the narrative without being simply historical – starting rather subfusc and semi-modern but building period realism through scenes of intrigue and trial. Fiona Kimm as the old Countess de Coigny could almost have stepped off a 1980s catwalk as the peasants revolt in the first act, at the opening of which disaffected butler Carlo Gérard and his put-upon aged Dad seem more Downton Abbey than Liaisons dangereuses. But thanks to conductor Olivier von Dohnányi’s scrupulous accompaniment, and Arden’s beautiful spacing of the performances within the simple setting (including a lengthy operatic staircase at the back of the stage which illustrates the opening of the Château ball and adapts to the Parisian turmoil), the ironies within this emotive tale make a telling political contribution.
Giordano’s score contains such a Wagnerian range of colour and catchiness that it could have done with even more idiomatic despatch from the maestro. But his care brought every role into solid play – both Phillip Rhodes’s resonant, affectionate Roucher and Daniel Norman’s authoritative Abbé (though he was OTT when doubling as the spy-intriguer L’Incredibile). Kimm doubled the reactionary, uncomprehending old Countess with the blind-beggarly Madelon, sacrificing her son for the Patrie with affecting passion and even lovelier timbre. Robert Hayward as Gérard gave a characteristically assured, persuasively acted performance, but the part ideally needs a younger more romantic touch. As a very sympathetic Maddalena, Annemarie Kremer similarly lacked the requisite immaturity for the opening ball where Chénier finds her a sort of muse, and her top was stretched while lower down she offered luscious tone.
I leave till last the title role, always the challenge of this marvellous opera – with its string of tenor opportunities familiar to all who fancy Italianate heldentenor form (Jon Vickers in an early Italian Arias LP, and Franco Corelli devastatingly at his best on EMI with the complete opera). Rafael Rojas was the linchpin of this terrific achievement, stylish, thrilling, meaningful, elegant in his acting and in his musicianship. This is a very good voice well worth hearing. But above all Rojas knows with what blessing Giordano’s arias are endowing him and gives them perfect intensity and roundness. Especially the first aria gripped me totally, made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. Illica uses the actual poet’s words and Rojas inspired us with their meaning. Beautiful, exciting and transforming: the character fixed for whatever fate throws at him, the opera made real as it should be.