A new year at the Royal Opera House hails a new production of a rarely performed opera - Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chénier, in its first Covent Garden appearance in thirty years. More hung on the opening night than imagined - in what has, so far, been an anticlimactic season for opera, with new productions of Un Ballo in Maschera and Idomeneo spectacularly failing to please.
The scene is set well enough. The curtain rises on a backdrop so opulent, so ostentatious, with every available surface slathered in gold, it is more overwhelming than aesthetically pleasing. Perhaps this is the intended effect, given the predicament of the Parisian aristocrats crowding the stage - studiously ignoring the rumblings of civilian unrest flooding the city streets. In comes our Maddalena, suitably petulant, and her mother, appropriately aggrieved. The guests flock in, all carefully attired if airy and insubstantial in pale pastels, determined to continue vapidly fluttering in their rapidly crumbling sphere of hierarchy prestige. At the edge hovers Andrea Chénier, a surly browed youth discomfited by such outrageous luxury. Teased, scolded and baited, he unfurls with righteousness - and an outpour of reproach, so affecting in its gravity and rectitude. Kaufmann's "Un dì all'azzuro spazio" was wondrous in its invigorated lament.
And yet, for the best part of three acts, the glory of his vocal fortitude was unmatched in believability. Andrea Chenier is a character perhaps singularly affecting as the embodiment of compelled, virile youth - the child of ideals and brevity. This conviction colours his first meeting with Maddalena - she is profoundly shaken by the purity of his hope; while the sharpness of his reprimand strikes her and wounds her like a blow, affecting far deeper than any stimulant in her small gilded world. Kaufmann's Chenier is stately and self-assured, but wanting in passion. His voice is indisputably superb and unsurpassed - the torment in there is real - but he outwardly expresses no such full-bodied commitment.
Within this drawback lies a more deep-rooted complaint about the production at large. Perhaps abashed and suffering from the criticisms plaguing most new productions at the ROH over the past year or so - notable examples being last season's Manon Lescaut and Don Giovanni - there is an air of caution that permeates the company. They tell us, on the promotional material, that this is a tale of glory! Liberty! Grand passion! Yet, nowhere is it evident. The sets are inoffensive, but lacking character - in particular, the expansive pale wood of Act 3 stripped the trial scene of much of its high tension, unfortunately denouncing it as the least gripping instalment of the tale. The orchestra play rousingly, but themselves fail to rouse the singers out of their refined shells (though Pappano tried so hard, I am told, that he nearly went through the boards in the final act). The characters are feelingly sung, but much defies emotional attachment. When Chénier and Maddalena unite in the heart of war-ridden Paris in Act 2, the climatic love scene whereupon two souls find idealistic solace in the midst of tragedy, we see not the abandon of passion that cannot be contained even in the face of danger, which precipitates their deaths. Chénier has searched blindly for a love that he has felt "brushing by him on the street", which he has chased with all the dogged determination of an artist in delirium. Yet, why does he recline on the table in such a stately and assured manner, calmly waiting for Maddalena to finish professing her sad story? Their first love duet was dispatched beautifully, but why did the audience not sigh collectively together with the crossed lovers? Why, in Act 3, does he not decry the parody of justice facing him, with the indignation and sorrow he expressed in the Contessa's drawing room, a parody which goes against his very ideals? The caution is not only his; the entire company had very much an air of 'getting the job done' rather than exuding the fiery fervour of a country overhauling its entire social regime. We are presented with Paris in the dirt, Paris in the dust, a Paris run by urchins - yet why does everything seem so orderly and undefiled? The result verges on disappointing.
Save, however, for Act 4, where something completely intangible seemed to fall into place. Call it first night teething problems, but at the bleak, cold end, Chénier and Maddalena seemed to truly reconcile for the first time. And what a stupendously wondrous effect it had! From his rousing solo "Come un bel dì di maggio" we heard what we had so long desired - profundity and conviction. A revolutionary, an idealist, an artist - the conviction, so solid and wrapped beguilingly in wistfully poetic language is manifest. Kaufmann's naturally magnetic open tone assumed profound new gravitas. The momentum continued, together with a gleeful Pappano. Westbroek's Maddalena too rose to the challenge. Their final duet, "Vicino a te" is gripping in its stark, steely grit - these lovers who walk towards death with a relieved heart and iron will are the embodiment of the liberty and passion we were promised. Their fascination of freedom extends to surpass mortal fear - they sing of death with such intensity, verging on piety, that it is darkly fascinating and truly gripping. Their end is not quite noble, but it is orphic and glorious.