Chelsea Opera Group present a superb Andrea Chénier at the Southbank

The 2022 summer opera season has been getting well and truly underway this week, with first nights at Opera Holland Park (Eugene Onegin) and Garsington (Orfeo), following Glyndebourne’s production of The Wreckers which opened in mid-May.  And, it’s a real treat to be resuming ‘more-or-less normal’ opera-going after the pandemic-hiatus of the last two years.  But, whatever delights lie ahead, they will be hard pushed to excel the evening of absolutely knock-out singing enjoyed at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on Sunday evening when Chelsea Opera Group presented a concert performance of Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier.

There was nothing subtle about the Robespierre-led Terror, nor the French Revolutionary context from which it sprang.  Similarly, there is nothing subtle about Giordano’s appropriation of the history, myths, anthems and political slogans of that Revolution in re-telling (and revising) the story of Andrea Chénier (1762-94), a real-life French poet whose initial revolutionary fervour soured to bitter dismay as inspiring ideals proved false, fallible and terrible when translated into action.  Imprisoned for denouncing the Jacobins, Chénier was incarcerated in St. Lazare; in his prison cell he wrote verses that have secured his literary reputation, one of which ‘La Jeune Captive’, was dedicated to Mlle. de Coigny, Duchesse de Fleury – Maddalena in Giordano’s opera – who escaped the guillotine as her operatic avatar does not.

Giordano’s opera springs repeatedly into lyrical efflorescence, but the ecstatic individual numbers do not so much as snuggle inside a convincing musico-dramatic framework, as deny the relevance of the latter entirely.  Andrea Chénier seems to me to be perfectly suited to concert performance.  There can only be one setting.  We don’t need to see the sans culottes to recognise the revolutionary energy of the songs they sing; we don’t need to see the guillotine to appreciate its terrorising impact on those for whom a wrong word spoken, overhead, reported could mean an appalling public death.  As a consequence, the musical units need to be big and bold, the performances larger than life. 

The uniformly fabulous cast at the QEH understood this absolutely, and conductor Giancula Marcianò inspired the COG Orchestra to follow suit.  A decade ago, I recall that I found the Orchestra’s playing worthy but a bit scrappy; since then, there’s been a steady improvement in ensemble, intonation, style – and stylishness – and general coherence.  Here, the evident hard work, commitment and professionalism paid off in tremendous fashion.  This was the best I’ve ever heard the Orchestra play.  There was a prevailing confidence: woodwind solos seemed eager to play their part in characterising and mood-setting; the strings’ ensemble was excellent, the tone warm and the energy high; when required to apply a slather of melodrama, brass and percussion rose to the challenge eagerly and with a strong sense of theatre.  Marcianò, who has previously conducted several operas with COG, is now their Artistic Director: they are lucky to have him, as he is fortunate to have such a rewarding group of players to coach and inspire.

To bring Andrea Chénier convincingly ‘to life’ requires a big, outgoing personality.  Step forward Welsh tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones whose voice is powered by inner strength and colour, not simply by weight and heft, and who consequently was able to embody the French revolutionary poet’s ardour, self-belief and stamina with relaxed poise.  It’s one verismo peak after another for the singer in the title role, and Jones assailed them all with thrilling panache, riding the crests with a dramatically fitting fearlessness.  He shaped the slightly breathy, angry exhortations of Act 1’s pontification on love, art and beauty, ‘Un dì all’azzurro spazio’, with a belying lyricism.  In Act 2, Chénier pondered the letters from ‘Speranza’ which he has received (‘Credo a una possanza arcana’) in persuasive exchanges with his friend, Roucher (Peter Rhodes).  There was a brilliant ping to his ringing high notes throughout – and no sign that they would ever flag or sag. 

This Chénier’s Maddalena di Coigny was soprano Claire Rutter who impressively demonstrated the range of her expression, singing with a wonderfully delicate pianissimo – set against gentle bassoon, clarinet and oboe – as, dressed as a servant, she waited for Chénier in Act 2, while elsewhere producing a lovely ripeness of tone and employing a full chest register.  The account of her suffering following her mother’s death, before Chénier’s avowal of love, was touching and tender (‘La mamma morta’).  And, in her duets with Jones, as they sought to ward off their woes with passion, she revelled in the opulence that Giordano encourages, both singers absolutely secure and relishing the high-octane music and drama.

Carlo Gérard is an interesting character, transforming as he does from servant to sans culotte, striving for revolutionary change but finding only disappointment and disillusion, his ethical goals and romantic desires equally unfulfilled.  Baritone Yuriy Yurchuk created a truly persuasive and engaging portrait: as he stared, frowning, into the middle distance (entirely off-score), and sang with pained but noble expression of his frustration and moral bewilderment, there could be no doubting Gérard’s introspective agony nor his essential integrity, however flawed his actions.  As he struggled to compose an indictment against Chénier, the sparse instrumentation revealed his anguish.  His epiphanic recognition of the hate-fuelling self-destructiveness of his own jealousy, ‘Nemico della patria? … Un dì m’era di gioia’ – the highlight of the evening for me – conveyed anger, pride, self-castigation and was sung with elegant fervour and glorious freedom of line. 

In the secondary roles mezzo-soprano Fiona Kimm was a sparky Countessa di Coigny and, later, a poignant widow, Madelon, lamenting the loss of the last of her line, her grandson, to the revolutionary cause.  Bass Thomas D. Hopkinson was a fittingly abrasive sans culotte, Mathieu, whose characterless melodies suggest a lack of insight or reflection.  In the role of Bersi, Maddalena’s maid, mezzo-soprano Yvonne Howard vividly proclaimed her revolutionary credentials in ‘Temer? Perchè’, the life-saving necessity of such ideological declarations emphasised by the urgent brass and timpani.  Bass-baritone Edward Jowle’s rich sonority proved useful in the roles of the Major Domo, Schmidt (a gaoler at St. Lazare), and Dumas, the President of the Tribunal.  Edward Danon (Pietro Fléville, a novelist, and Fouquier-Tinville, the Public Prosecutor) and Peter Bronder (as the Abbé and L’Incredible, a spy) played their fine parts in the sum total of the glorious musical evening.

The COG Chorus were well-marshalled, and if they were a little under-strength at times – the usual ranks seemed rather depleted? – then precision and commitment were much in evidence.  Whether as shepherds and shepherdesses serenading the Contessa with a saccharine pastorale – a strangely anachronistic number, presumably nodding towards Marie Antoinette’s play-acting in her little ‘hamlet’ at Versailles – or as the hungry Verdian revolutionaries demanding bread, blood and brutal change, the Chorus gave the impression of confidently knowing their role within the drama and being fully involved in the latter.  The ‘Carmagnole’, particularly its unison rendition in Act 3, demonstrated rhythmic vigour, a firm, coherent sound, and good use of the consonants.

In the final scene, as Jones and Rutter sang with refulgent radiance of Chénier’s and Maddalena’s longing for a shared death (‘Vicino a te’), the rest of the cast closed their eyes, their faces graced by gentle smiles, evidently moved and inspired.  After wave upon wave, voice upon voice, Jowle’s Schmidt issued a no-nonsense call to execution which broke down the walls of the vocal rapture, brass and cymbals hastening all and everyone towards the tragic, inevitable close: ‘Viva la morte insiem!’  The silence didn’t have long to settle.  And, the standing ovation was absolutely deserved.

Claire Seymour

Umberto Giordano: Andrea Chénier

Chelsea Opera Group Orchestra, Gianluca Marcianò (conductor)

Yuriy Yurchuk – Gérard, Gwyn Hughes Jones – Andrea Chénier, Claire Rutter –Maddalena de Coigny, Fiona Kimm – Madelon / Contessa de Coigny, Yvonne Howard – Bersi, Phillip Rhodes – Roucher, Edmund Danon – Pietro Fléville / Fouquier-Tinville, Peter Bronder – The Incredible / Abbé, Edward Jowle – Schmidt / Dumas, Thomas D Hopkinson – Mathieu.

Queen Elizabeth Hall, Southbank Centre, London; Sunday 29th May 2022.