Music: Umberto Giodarno
Libretto: Luigi Illica
Director: Annabel Arden
Conductor: Oliver von Dohnányl
Reviewer: Rich Jevons
The action, set in revolutionary France, starts at the Château de Coigny where we find servant Gerard secretly in love with the lady of the house, Madeleine. We are introduced to the guests as they enter, including an Abbé who reports with news back from the courts where the Royalty is in ruin. The unassuming poet Andrea Chenier is practically forced into speaking of love as part of a wager between members of the party. A crowd come for alms and are summarily dismissed, the first rumbles of the revolution in the opera.
By Act 2, Andrea is in disfavour with the Revolutionary leaders having denounced Robespierre but refuses to flee with a false passport. There ensues a set-up which results in Andrea and Madeleine meeting and expressing their love for each other, in a particularly moving aria. But Gerard, now high up in the revolutionary order, challenges Chenier and is wounded in a scuffle. This leads Gerard to add Chenier’s name to the death sentence list but then quite irrationally goes back on his word, having witnessed Madeline’s deep love for the poet, traitor or not. But the Mob still want his blood and the final act is in a bare prison cell where the fateful couple faces death together.
The Orchestra of Opera North is on fine form, working frenetically under the careful but fluid direction of conductor Oliver von Dohnányl. In between acts, there are video and projection designs by Dick Straker which set the scene for suggesting the power of the pen, be it for a love poem or death warrant. Servant-cum-revolutionary Gerard is played sympathetically by Robert Hayward. But the real stars of the show are Annemarie Kramer and Rafael Rojas as the doomed lovers.
Joanna Parker’s set and costume design really conjure up the epoch with great attention to detail and subtlety. Especially notable is the final scene, which could have been overplayed but is more minimalist in style in a wash of aquamarine. Annabel Arden directs with clarity and a forcefulness that carries through the scenes adeptly and the ensemble live up to the high bar set by the leads.
Particularly effective are the crowd scenes with the chorus in the shadows, but clearly audible as a Mob calling for revolutionary change, now caught up in the Terror. This is a highly emotive show which, while true to its place as historical drama, drags the libretto screaming and kicking into the 21st Century to move our hearts and ignite our minds without maudlin melodrama. Andrea Cheniér is a pièce de résistance to mark the start of Opera North’s 2016 season.
Runs until 24 February then touring | Image: Robert Workman