Umberto Giordano - Andrea Chénier
Teatro alla Scala, Milan - 2017
Riccardo Chailly, Mario Martone, Yusif Eyvazov, Anna Netrebko, Luca Salsi, Annalisa Stroppa, Mariana Pentcheva, Judit Kutasi, Gabriele Sagona, Costantino Finucci, Carlo Bosi, Gianluca Breda, Francesco Verna, Manuel Pierattelli, Romano Dal Zovo
ARTE Conccert - 7 December 2017
There aren't too many directors who carry their own guillotine around with them, but for the opening night of the new season at La Scala, Mario Martone came well-prepared. The authentic looking guillotine used for La Scala's new production of Andrea Chénier is the same one the director used for his 2010 film about the French Revolution, Noi credevamo (Frères d'Italie) and most recently it was used in a theatre production of Buchner's Danton's Death that Martone directed.
It's good to be prepared and know your ground when you're embarking on a new production of Andrea Chénier at the same venue where it was first performed in 1896, at a house where it hasn't been performed in 32 years, and for an audience as exigent and demanding as those at the first night of the new season at La Scala. There's nothing wrong then with playing relatively safe with a largely traditional production, as Andrea Chénier is after all rather historically specific. Compared to some recent opening night controversies, a strong cast and spectacular performances at least ensured that it was a memorable evening for the right reasons.
In tune with the work itself, this was very much an operatic evening rather than any attempt to make a political point or director's statement. If there was a large mirrored background on the stage for Act I, it wasn't to reflect the aristocracy in the audience at La Scala as much attempt to draw Giordano's opera in on itself. Gérard mocks the ridiculous figures in static poses and the elaborately ornamented mirrors offer a distorted reflection of the world of the French aristocracy, playing parlour games and unaware of the dark shadows of the lives of ordinary people and servants that lie behind them. Even as word arrives from Paris, they can't see beyond their own distorted view of themselves.
Elsewhere Mario Martone's production refrains from any grand statements or gestures and yet it still seems to be perfectly in keeping with the grand gestures and statements of the work itself. Even with all its elements of self-sacrifice and humanism in the face of terror that lie at the very emotional heart of the work, Martone views Andrea Chénier foremost as an opera and indeed structured as an opera narrative rather than some kind of documentary realism that offers any insight into the nature and behaviour of those caught up in the nightmare of the French Revolution.
Viewing it as an opera above all else and with Riccardo Chially who conducted the last production at La Scale in 1985 again at the helm, the production and the performances consequently bring out the real musical qualities of the piece. And in fact while I often find the first act to be a little too mannered in its exposition, here I felt that this production tied it together much better than many otherwise fine productions I've seen of Andrea Chénier. Act I here doesn't set out to either vilify the aristocracy or seek sympathy for them, nor does it just show their dislocation from reality, but it actually brings together the themes raised in the parlour games relating to poetry and love, and shows them reaching their fullness of expression at the height of The Terror.
If Martone ensured that the production flowed smoothly as an opera, drawing attention to the dramatic focus of every scene perfectly while keeping it grounded in the world around it (and providing good spectacle as well), it perfectly matched the performance that Chially was drawing out of the orchestra. The La Scala orchestra were truly on fire, matching the passions of the work with a dynamic I haven't heard in this work before, alive to its shifts of tone, to the human element as much as the epic historical scale of the opera. The pacing and the balance with the singing and the drama was just masterful, revealing just how well-constructed and composed the work is even beyond its famous arias.
The challenges of the singing however are far from the least important aspect of the opera, and realistically you can't carry this work off as well as this without singers of great experience, talent and charisma. Obviously that's not going to be neglected at such an important event at La Scala, but the casting was not without some prior reservations, particularly at the suitability and capability of Yusif Eyvazov to take on a role as challenging and monumental as the poet Andrea Chénier. If there were some suspicion that he only got the role as the other half of Anna Netrebko, Eyvazov soon dispelled those reservations and proved himself to be worthy of his place in the big league with an exceptional performance here.
So perfectly is Andrea Chénier composed as an opera, that all the moments are there for the taking in each act, and my goodness, Netrebko, Eyvazov and Salsi never missed a trick. The direction of Act II's 'Ora soave' duet might not have revealed any great insights or nuances into character or situation, but it was just great opera and the pairing of Netrebko and Eyvazov revealed its worth. Netrebko was reliably impressive, impeccable in her phrasing and timing of the recitative, and explosive in her arias. Not terribly well-directed, it remained an opera diva performance, but that doesn't mean it was in any way lacking in passion, charisma or dramatic delivery.
Eyvazov however was by no means overshadowed by his wife, giving a commanding performance that was passionate and fully alive to the sentiments of the moment. It was clearly a push in some places, but Eyvazov rose to all the challenges - not least the all-important Act III trial scene at the Revolutionary Tribunal - with wonderful Italianate phrasing. Despite the large contingent of Russians and East Europeans in the cast, it's the emphasis on the Italianate that is ultimately the key aspect that make this production of Andrea Chénier at La Scala nothing less than stunning. That's not only reflected in the performance of the principals, but in the performance of Luca Salsi's Carlo Gérard and right down to Judit Kutasi's viecchia Madelon. There wasn't anything to frighten the conservative elements of the Milan audience here certainly, but there was plenty to impress and the audience responded accordingly.