OPERA - OTHER COMPOSERS - ANDREA CHERNIER
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.