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Heart throb tenor Jonas Kaufman does his best in a second-rate opera
It hardly needs pointing out that despite recent tragedies, Paris in the 1790s was a lot more dangerous than it is today; a city in which factions of revolutionaries dispatched each other for the pettiest of jealousies, never mind the despised aristocrats.
This is the setting for Umberto Giordano’s operatic tale of a dashing poet caught up in the turmoil. Such a historical setting can produce stunning and terrifying drama, such as Poulenc’s ‘Dialogues des Carmélites’; even Schönberg’s ‘Les Misérables’ manages a few rousing ear-worms.
However, in the hands of the second-rate Giordano, the result is a plodding score that reveals intimations of contemporaries Puccini and Verdi, but lacks sophistication or variety of texture. What it needs then is a big injection of imagination and energy – but that, unfortunately, is lacking in David McVicar’s staid new production.
The main problem is that there is no sense of jeopardy in the name of love. David McVicar’s production is utterly traditional – the costumes by Jenny Tiramani are straight out the history book; and the set by Robert Jones which begins as a rococo drawing room then becomes a large, nondescript room giving way to an eighteenth-century colonnade. The chorus are mostly kept busy carrying torches and pitchforks and chanting against the state;other than that, they stand rooted to the spot dumbly watching proceedings, such as when writer Chénier is at his desk, er… writing. There are precious few diversions to hold our attention, save a brief pas de deux from a pair of ballet dancers and a cage full of children released on stage to run around and look cute.
Jonas Kaufmann, surely the most popular tenor in the world today, certainly looks and sounds the part of the titular poet; his mystery woman (Maddalena di Coigny) duly arrives in the form of soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, who matches him note for note in dramatic singing over an orchestra driven on by Antonio Pappano to make the most of this rather poor score, which only picks up in the final act.
The star of the show, however, is Serbian baritone Željko Lučić, who makes a truly passionate agitator as Carlo Gérard, who begins as a liveried servant but, tipped over the edge by having to watch a bourgeois gathering dance a gavotte while the poor are starving, goes on to lead the Jacobins. He is a man ‘ruined by reading’, his aristocratic employer (played wonderfully by Rosalind Plowright) wistfully observes, in a rare moment of much needed humour.