What is missing in the Royal Opera House’s Chénier?* We have a good cast with two of the leading voices of our age. We have one of the leading directors of opera too, a talent sure footed in his direction and choices. We have a subject that should thrill – love against the odds, love indeed unto death, set in Revolutionary France and yet we have…the Royal Opera House’s Chénier. What is missing really makes itself felt. So, what is missing?
Let’s think, shall we?
The piece should be Romantic with a capital ‘Raar!’ Giordano’s Chénier is a dreamy metaphysician, given to dithyrambs and rhapsodies, spinning spondees (or rather, iambs) about celestial love, sublimity, infinite desire and faces like the dawn. He is a walking Kasper David Friedrich painting. What does Jonas Kaufmann‘s Chénier have? Hard to say. He has the libretto, the words of which suggest ardency but the action is not fitted to the word. One hears but does not quite believe.
So, poetry pours forth from the mouth of his Chénier and very well does it pour forth too, this also being the same mouth which clamps onto Eva-Maria Westbroek’s own periodically in intimation of passionate abandonment – much to the envy of many thousands of women from all age groups who wish they too could ardently snog ‘Jay Kay’ (yes I realise no one calls him JK). Snogging there is, and in spades, but it’s rather flat, just like the whole staging: passion but in simulcara. Passionless.
The flatness carries onto McVicar’s production (or perhaps may be its source?) We get the signifiers of Revolutionary France: sans culottes, urchins, floppy red hats with tricolore rosettes in, various gavroches, wenches and townsfolk, but we don’t get the sense that anything done by or to do with this teeming horde of supernumeraries really matters. I imagine that one could get rid of them all and play this opera piece smaller (Grimeborn, take note!) and it would still work, in fact, it may work even better. Losing the busy-ness would perhaps concentrate the tension.
All the same, I have to give credit to McVicar’s commitment to stout realism. (This commitment incidentally must have cost squillions.) Characters in Act One swan around in lavish costumes – or if peasants (Act Two) in seemingly authentic (and quite un-grubby looking) gear. There’s a bust of Marat, a ballroom, a tavern-cum-street scene complete with periodic street traffic where a tumbrel trundles by complete with almost-comical cabbage throwing. A star chamber court, a dungeon, swords, floppy cuffs, period correct soldiers (but not period correct ballet…) The entire kitchen sink tossed in. Detail out of your ears.
The flooring looked good in the ballroom scene (less so elsewhere, of which more later). There were real candles, simulation of street lamps and lamp-lighters (a nice nod to Revolution in general, which loves to both smash, and hang people from lamps) the cost of all this all ginormous one imagines, and as one twitter user said: “there’s the budget for Foscari”. For me though this busy backdrop which works hard to be so suggestive of its era becomes instead empty facade. One could say that the curtain, as impressive as it is, is a vain attempt to say “this matters, be amazed!” (And I did really like the curtain, tattered, covered with dried blood at its bottom edges, but was it really necessary, was it again just a “look at this! wow!” device, or more, was it just a fig leaf to try and hide the general lack of everything in the production? gravtias through spectacle?)
Beyond set, and acting, I felt atmosphere as a whole was lacking. If supervening forces conspire to condemn Chénier and (art entire? the curtain says “Même Platon a banni les poètes de sa République”) it should in fact revolt us to see Chénier condemned. Instead, not quite. Westbroek and Kaufmann sing when condemned but when evil is as so poorly suggested as here it is not so effective. I am not saying “Grand Frère” should stamp a clogged heel into their faces, but just that the menace of incipient Terror should knock more harshly upon the door, and upon our hearts: having a group of urchins uncouthly invade a dinner party doesn’t quite set the heart racing. Having strumpets stroll around a bit isn’t menacing. Having a court crowd hiss a bit isn’t terrifying. I want my protagonists to feel caught up in a maelstrom but here, no whirlwind. It is all a bit pedestrian. (Giodarno or McVicar, I can’t say.) Do I ask too much?
If the enemy is the state it is ill-suggested and if I am unsure by whom (Giodarno or McVicar…) I am more certain on even more McVicary points: The trial scene was perfunctory in manner and staging, just like the swordfight which closes Act Two. (Then again bish-bash-boshing in telegraphically awful choreographed fights for two minutes at a time does get a bit tedious…) The lighting seemed too bright throughout. I wanted murk and fear but found it only in the prison scene.
So what is missing is a thorough staging and atmosphere. What else? What of passion?
The ROH sells this as “Umberto Giordano’s passionate opera, a drama of liberty and love in the French Revolution”. Chénier should be a beacon of glorious defiance but here he is anything but. Where is the drama? The tension? The success of an opera is only partly due to the staging. It must fall to the stars involved in its performance for help.
And stars they are, but perhaps not all shining brightly here, neither singly, nor binary, nor collectively. In fact, the one person onstage who does shine is one out of the “main sequence” of stars, of whom more later.
Come booking day, the so called Kaufmann effect was in effect, tickets at eye-watering and wallet weepingly high prices. Naturally his name brings the fans who one imagine would pay to hear him sing a laundry list. Yes he has the curls, the looks and locks and stockings. Yes, he sung well – until the closing duet where Westbroek totally overwhelmed him – but opera is more than singing, and usually Kaufmann succeeds because Kaufman knows this. His acting is usually uniformly impressive. He emotes, he believes and thus we believe. As Lohengrin, I can believe he loves a swan (even when I can’t believe that Anja Harteros makes for a good bricklayer). If Kaufmann can make me believe that, he can make me believe anything. I can believe his grief when his name is revealed. Even as Dick Johnson, he invests in the character and sings to be believed. Here I in no way believed. I didn’t care if Chénier met Mme Guillotine. The weight of expectation I had here for ‘the greatest tenor of our day’ was for me unfulfilled. It sounded just like he was going for Voice and little Act. I wonder if he was under-directed or under-rehearsed because there was no hesitancy, instead a detectable lack of physical ardency, both when with others and singing out to us.
Not for lack of trying I suppose. The signs of ardour were there, but the chemistry didn’t ignite. Nothing here even close to exothermic, nor happily, I suppose, endothermic, instead just a bit of paltry wisp of smoke: no fire, no smoulder, just a misfire from, I now think, a mispairing. I wanted fireworks but got nothing close. Maybe they just “don’t make a good couple?” she is quite tall, and can’t do the whole “loving opera embrace.” Maybe it is because of Chénier’s airy-fairy words which blabble a bit and don’t declare anything we recognise as love? (However, it works in Tosca? and note there, how they almost can’t keep their hands off each other? not much of that in this Chénier, its almost like he is trying to cajole Maddalena into displays of love). And maybe it is because of the above, the empty signs. Come to think of it, I also think that the un-changing floor was a bit distracting. The same geometric tiled flooring was in place throughout the entire opera, even in the prison scene. Maybe this broke the believability too?
Of the singers, and out of that main sequence, Željko Lučić was in fact perhaps the best of the night and fully deserving of his ovations. Here was a man who convinced as Gérard, the former servant turned eminence grise of revolution. Here was the force of self-betrayal, a weight of emotion which Kaufmann should have mirrored. Where Gérard defended Chénier with his life and sung of his love for country (Nemico della patria?) we believed. He felt what he sung, and believed and so we did too. Contrast: on pronouncement of death by the jury, Kaufmann’s Chénier instead almost seems to say ‘oh well’ and just walks offstage. Not into history, nor into fear, perdition or despair; walking not with defiance or fear or anger, no glimmer of anything as weighty as that. He just walks offstage. Next cue, next aria, dress the set, carry on. Again, perfunctory. Could do better.
Westbroek did do better overall, all over. She is vocally a good fit for the role, her noble voice finding full expression in “La mama morta...” For the closing phrase, a big intake of breath, a sense of risk and a roughness of emotion which suggested a commitment which Kaufmann lacked. Instead his more polished style seemed to gloss over emotion. I did wonder too if partly a lack of chemistry was down to lack of reciprocation from Westbroek(nothing personal, Eva-Maria). I got vibes it wasn’t mutual at times, put it that way. I may be misremembering, but whatever it was, it is tough to fake.
Deynce Graves‘ Bersi was a voice less happy for my ear. She has something odd in the timbre, a metallic harshness which I found bothersome. Not a voice I can get on with, I am afraid.
Elena Zilio‘s Madelon got a good smattering of bravas and a lot of applause for a gutsy Son la vecchia Madelon but I wondered if her voice successfully knitted together or something: the opening words spat with fury, a fiery tone and temper, but on ascending into her head voice it turned into something more pure, having lost rancor due to tonal difference. As such it sounded like an aria of rollercoaster up and downs, but with the ups being the downs, oddly.
Pappano led the orchestra with surety and purpose. The slightly syrupy tone of the music suits him well, I think, and in fact I thought the ROH Orchestra played the best I have heard in a while.
At curtain, Westbroek and Kaufmann seemed well pleased. Big grins, a spontaneous hug, massive applause and cheers. For Lučić, acclaim, for Westbroek, not as many cheers as there should have been – a bit embrasassing after Lučić – and for Kaufmann, well one can imagine. Chorus master Renato Belsadonna appeared at curtain, Pappano too, and Kaufmann smacked his hand lustily into Lučić’s in a ‘hell yeah! Mission success!’ moment of confrereity before pulling them into their curtain call. Maybe for him it was job well done but for me, not so much.
Not terrible then, and not great. Instead just OK.
* the short answer:
Minimal. A good audience. Upper slips 16 to 18 (I was 18) briefly, perplexedly had a “hummer” during the opening overture; a baritonal amatuersh enthusaistic humming along with the main overture theme. Cue puzzled looks at each other, not so much accusation as surprise, but pleased to report the humming stopped after that. An isolated incident. Less so with the painful egress from the House itself, a slouching towards oblivion the more painful when totally choccablock as tonight, and the more so because full of older people. Incidents galore. Therefore, tempers, tumbles. I nearly ‘cut up’ an old guy on the stairs and said sorry and he said ‘should think so!’. Good sir, in truth you will not meet a more contrite man than I. Then immediately after an old guy fell down the stairs, which is easier than falling up them – which I have also seen at ROH. The amphi stairs a deathtrap, and the slips reminiscent of the Camino del Rey, much to the vertigo-challenged cohort in the above fifty bracket (which is a signigicant proportion)’s terror. Upon entering the scrum of coat reclamation a guy starts pushing past everyone, even past a wheelchair and a lady said ‘nasty man!’ After getting shoved by him. She administered a sharp thwack with her umbrella to the offender’s parting leg, said offender continuing to buffalo out of the venue, posthaste, the umbrella strike (sadly un-Markov-ed) no censure, and no inducement to contrition – nor apology. The madness of crowds. Just another night at the opera.