Andrea Chénier: Antonio Pappano bows out by making a feeble opera fly

Jonas Kaufmann and Sondra Radvanovsky in the Royal Opera's Andrea Chénier
Jonas Kaufmann and Sondra Radvanovsky in the Royal Opera's Andrea Chénier - Alastair Muir

Antonio Pappano’s 22-year tenure as music director of the Royal Opera has been so outstandingly successful, so important for operatic life in this country, and so widely praised by all involved including the King, that it somehow seems a pity that he has chosen to sign off with this revival of Umberto Giordano’s meretricious 1896 drama Andrea Chénier. It’s a feeble, creaky opera based on events around the French Revolution, with little to recommend it except opportunities for top singers to shine at top volume.

This doubtless explains Pappano’s choice, for one of the many admirable distinguishing features of his regime has been his constant support for and nurturing of great singers. Pappano favourite Jonas Kaufmann starred in David McVicar’s production when it opened nine years ago; he once again sings the part of the poet Andrea Chénier who finds love among the traumas of the Revolution and is eventually condemned to be executed. Kaufmann’s tenor can still encompass the extremes of the role but now shows signs of strain in its upper regions, and his character is bland, but his noisy supporters in the house take every opportunity to cheer on their hero, and he certainly delivers the big moments of Giordano’s unmemorable melodies with panache.

The response of the rest of the audience to him was muted on Thursday evening, and they saved their greatest enthusiasm for the two other elements of the love triangle: Sondra Radvanovsky as Maddalena (she sang in a previous 2019 revival, alongside Roberto Alagna), whose passionate intensity was sometimes forced but always blazing with conviction, and the remarkable Amartüvshin Enkhbat as Gérard, who harbours love for Maddalena and is involved in sending Chénier to his death.  He is magnificently sonorous and focused in his one big aria; a moment of true frisson among the noisy effects of Giordano’s score is when Maddalena declares to Gérard, “If the price of his [Chenier’s] life is my body, then take it”.

McVicar’s production, here sturdily revived by Thomas Guthrie, makes a virtue of its historical allusions, no-nonsense handsome sets and period style; Giordano, with a nod to 18th-century gavottes and a hint of the Marseillaise, apes the sense of period – but the trouble is that as the era of verismo took opera over, Mascagni and Puccini did all this so much better.

There are some fine singers in the many supporting roles, notably Ashley Riches as Roucher, William Dazeley as Fléville, and the veteran Rosalind Plowright as the Countess whose Château is invaded by the mob, while Jeremy White as the gloomy jailor Schmidt deserves a Covent Garden long-service award for his many unrewarding bit-parts.

In the end, the triumph is Pappano’s, as he steers his singers and encourages long broad phrases, while the superb quality of the orchestra he has developed, here demonstrating the inner depth of the string sound, the shining clarity of the woodwind, and the fierce impact of the brass, manages to make even Giordano’s unsubtle music sound resonantly convincing.

In rep until June 11;