The stars aligned for an unforgettable evening of magnificent music as Opera Australia showcased superstar tenor Jonas Kaufmann in Andrea Chénier in Concert.
The second Melbourne appearance of Kaufmann filled the capacious Hamer Hall auditorium not just with local opera cognoscenti but also with a generous proportion of opera professionals. Dutch soprano Eva-Marie Westbrook and French baritone Ludovic Tézier each made their Australian debut with this concert season of Andrea Chénier in Sydney and Melbourne.
His face on every billboard and program cover, Kaufmann was in excellent form, but the true success of the evening came from the way the great tenor’s talent was so capably matched and complemented by his fellow international guest artists, along with ten outstanding Australian artists. Likewise, the Opera Australia Orchestra was in superb form under the esteemed baton of maestro Pinchas Steinberg.
Steinberg delivered a sparkling sound from the generous contingent of musicians, later delivering thrilling volume as the Revolutionary Tribunal reached its climax. The quality of the music was completed by polished, characterful singing from the Opera Australia Chorus, with an evenly matched set of male and female singers sitting overhead in the Hall’s Choir seats. A heavenly highlight of the Chorus, expertly prepared by Anthony Hunt, was the delightful “pastoral” performance at the Contessa di Coigny’s Ball in act one.
Loosely based on the life of French poet André Chénier, the opera’s title character is railroaded to face revolutionary charges by jealous rival Gérard. Maddalena’s adoration of Chénier sees her take the place of a female prisoner to join her great love at the guillotine.
Pre-reading of the plot proved a worthwhile exercise, with the rather unwieldy number of characters making the concert version somewhat challenging to follow, despite the provision of perfectly clear surtitles. The singers performed their roles with great passion, their familiarity with the score aiding their interaction with scene partners. While small details may have slipped by, the heart of the story certainly shone through, building to a highly romantic, albeit tragic, conclusion.
Man in Chair was fortunate enough to attend the premiere season of the new Royal Opera Andrea Chénier, in which Kaufmann and Westbrook played these same roles. Past experience clearly contributed to the pair’s strong sense of camaraderie, their familiarity with the music also supporting their well-rounded performances. Kaufmann held his score yet barely glanced at it, impressing immediately in his first scene with “Un dì all’azzurro spazio” (heard on the same stage in his 2014 Melbourne concert). Westbrook stepped away from her music stand to make “La mamma morta” a moving showpiece.
Delivering nuanced, meticulously calibrated vocals when performing alone, the two stars were at their very best in the opera’s soaring duets. Maddalena and Chénier proclaimed their love in “Ora Soave,” which was rapturously received. As the evening progressed, the approach of the climactic duet at the guillotine took on the highly anticipated aura of a ballet’s final grand pas de deux. Westbrook and Kaufmann left the audience on a high, as their performance of “Vicino a te, s’acquita” soared to the heavens.
Raising the standard ever higher was the presence of Tézier as embittered servant turned deceitful revolutionary, Gérard. Tézier’s baritone poured forth with richly burnished beauty, all the more impressive for his immaculate technique, which belies not a hint of the effort involved. After interval, Tézier basically owned the stage for the first half of act three, as Gérard schemes to dispose of Chénier and claim Maddalena as his own. Such was the quality of Tézier’s performance, he could have been the main attraction in his own right; future appearances are keenly anticipated.
Each Australian cast member acquitted themselves to an exacting standard, adding significantly to the vocal beauty and characterful stage performance.
Highlights included Dominica Matthews in a fittingly regal rendition of the Contessa di Coigny. Gifted singing actress Sian Sharp brought dignity to the plight of maid-turned-prostitute Bersi. Completely off book, Anna Dowsley made the most of the cameo role of elderly blind woman Madelon, singing beautifully and conveying the poor woman’s sorrow in her body language.
Benjamin Rasheed gave The Incredible a mischievous spark. Luke Gabbedy brought out the pompous nobility of Mathieu. Christopher Hillier grounded the role of novelist Fléville in seriousness, enhancing the importance of the character.
To give one comment about the visual aspect of the performance, it was not clear whether the fact that three of the four female singers wore gowns in the same dark blue by design or incredible coincidence. Either way, as befitting a Contessa, Matthews came across as best dressed in a glamorous black with multi-coloured print dress and black lace wrap.
The capacity audience went beaming and bubbling into the night, thrilled to have had the chance to enjoy evening of such sterling musicality.
Andrea Chénier played at Hamer Hall, Arts Centre Melbourne 7pm Tuesday 13 August 2019.
Photos: Keith Saunders (Sydney Opera House)