Andrea Chernier made a small reputation as a poet in the early years of the French Revolution, which sent him to the guillotine three days before Robespierre in 1794. A century later, the Italian composer, Umberto Giodano, set a libretto by Luigi Illica, which matched the passions of Chernier’s personality and politics.

Andrea Chernier stayed in the repertoire as a vehicle for posturing tenors. So unaccustomed are Sydney audiences to a tenor with the heft to fill the opera theatre that Johan Botha's opening aria in the title role provoked a frenzy of delight. Botha can land his voice anywhere from a sitting start, swooping across registers while displaying reserves of both breath and intonation. The more demanding the passage, the finer he sounds. His young voice is less focused in its lower parts. His bulk makes him an improbable romantic lead but again he can summon the poise to fix attention when the story requires us to believe him capable of commanding respect.

Chernier wins the heart of the aristocrat Maddalena di Coigny, sung by Elizabeth Whitehouse, by the conviction of his verses in praise of nature and love. Whitehouse has complete control of her warm soprano, soaring with the desire Maddalena has suppressed for five years, sobbing with the ecstasy of ending her life beside Chernier, surpassing his courage by offering her neck in place of a hapless girl. Whitehouse swept such improbabilities aside in a torrent of purest singing.

If Chernier’s character is too noble to be of interest, his rival, Gerard, is the bundle of contraries on which the interpretation should pivot. He opens the opera by condemning the social regime that keeps him the servile son of a servant. By the height of "The Terror" he has lost his faith in social revolution, to be motivated by jealousy over Maddalena instead of justice. He libels Chernier to get him condemned before recanting in court. These twists are the stuff of drama. Ian Vayne's potent baritone supplies the intensity of self-torment but not the subtlety to etch its emotional and intellectual intaglio.

The divided nature of the revolutionary Gerard had little chance of making its presence felt against the vision of humankind brought to the production by its director, Elke Neidhardt. At every opportunity she punctures illusion. That attitude works too easily in the chateau where the ancien regime is too sclerotic even to gavotte. Her wish to mock the fervour of any crowd has sapped the fearsomeness from their behaviour, except as individual acts, such as a bayoneting. The sets further constrained the mob, which needed to be choreographed to run riot in Act III.

The success of Andrea Chernier cannot be guaranteed by three outstanding leads. Giordano’s mediocre score requires the sweep of a social cataclysm on stage, and that hope-filled disaster must storm from the pit to erupt across the stage. The orchestra sprang to life after interval to deliver its finest playing so far under Simone Young. Solos were uniformly precise and they united for the aural terror that tears through the third act, as did the chorus.

The work includes a dozen vignettes to bridge the class divide between the trio of principals and the mobs, whether of aristocrats or sans-culottes. Each of these smaller parts is an opportunity for brilliance and every participant contributed to the evening's achievement. Heather Begg was larger than herself as the doomed Countess. Christopher Dawes as the police spy known only as "L'Incredible" was cruel and comic. Arax Mansourian as the blind widow offering her grandson to the cause was more chilling than any executioner.

Michael Scott-Mitchell's metallic set contributed to the opening party as a hall of mirrors, but thereafter got in the way, or proved purposeless. The costumes in Act one by Jennie Tate were sublimely ridiculous.

Not since Neidhardt's 1997 Tannhauser has Opera Australia premiered a production with so many angles worth disputing. Above all, why does Maddalena exit right instead of taking Andrea’s hand as he goes to the scaffold? Is Neidhardt telling us that an aristocrat is too heartless to throw away her life? Or is it that no woman should die for her man? The puzzles in this Chernier makes the Parsifal that Neidhardt is to direct for Adelaide in September ever more promising.