Andrea Chénier – Opera in four acts to a libretto by Luigi Illica [sung in Italian]
Andrea Chénier – Andrea Bocelli
Carlo Gérard – Lucio Gallo
Maddalena di Coigny – Violeta Urmana
Bersi – Stella Grigorian
La Contessa di Coigny – Cinzia di Mola
Madelon – Elena Obraztsova
Peitro Fléville – Roberto Accurso
L’Abate – Mauro Buffoli
Roucher – Simone Alberghini
Fouquier-Tinville – Ezio Maria Tisi
Mathieu – Alessandro Busi
Un “Incredibile” – Gregory Bonfatti
Dumas – Gianfranco Montresor
Schmidt – Gianfranco Montresor
Il Maestro di casa – Ezio Maria Tisi
Orchestra Sinfonica e Coro di Milano Giuseppe Verdi
Recorded 11-22 July 2007 in Auditorium di Milano
Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell
Reviewed: July 2010
CD No: Decca 478 2382 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 58 minutes
Studio recordings of operas have become an increasingly rare commodity, so one should perhaps be thankful that some of the major record companies still are prepared to put resources towards them. However, this is a project that seems misconceived from the outset, and seems to be aimed not at the operatic connoisseur but at a different market altogether. Andrea Bocelli is a popular culture phenomenon to be sure. He is very much the star billing; his name emblazoned on the packaging above all other contributors to the venture and in considerably larger font size than the poor composer (Umberto Giordano, 1867-1948). At least the opera’s title is printed in slightly larger font otherwise one might have thought that Andrea Bocelli was the name of the opera.
Listening to this recording one can appreciate why Bocelli has the following he does. He does have a voice of evident natural quality, with a tone that is even across its range, albeit with a limited palette of colour and equally limited dynamic range as recorded here. He has good diction too.
So what is wrong? The difficulty is with interpretation really. The character of Andrea Chénier is that of a poet at a time of revolution. He’s an unashamed romantic and in his declamations and improvisations demonstrates he’s on the side of the oppressed, is passionate about the rights of the individual and a firm believer that justice is for all. He’s also an ardent lover and a man of great personal generosity. He gets some show-stopping arias and duets to demonstrate all these facets, and that is surely why tenors love to sing the role and why the opera still retains a tenuous hold on the margins of the repertory of the world’s opera houses. Much of Giordano’s writing can seem rather pallid between these highlights, and so the tenor has to carry a lot on his shoulders. It should be tailor-made for any tenor with popular charisma.
On this evidence Bocelli simply does not possess the ability to encapsulate these character-traits vocally. Temperamentally this Chénier seems tentative and cautious. There’s something wrong when the Act One “Un di all’azzuro spazio…” passes off without much sense of abandon, challenge to his (stage) audience and of pure theatre. It seems all too careful and controlled, and the architecture of the aria as a whole seems rather monotonous. The same happens in the political outburst of Act Three when Chénier upbraids the self-serving personnel at his tribunal and asserts his pride in his country and its people. There’s little sense of fire and some of the anger ‘effects’ of the delivery seem a bit contrived and lack spontaneity. And it is this impulsiveness of utterance that graces other recorded interpretations such as Domingo’s (conducted by James Levine) or Pavarotti’s (Riccardo Chailly).
Bocelli’s relative reticence also affects the duets with Violeta Urmana’s Maddalena di Coigny. She comes over as rather assertive and dominant in this relationship and that is wrong – the character finds her real strength in the latter stretches of the action as a result of her passion for the poet. In a sense they do not always seem to be singing in the same ‘production’. Urmana has a rich voice (she started life as a glorious mezzo-soprano and has retained the warmth and security of tone of her ‘middle voice’ despite moving into the soprano fach), and she takes all the challenges of the role in her stride. Her vocal ease and her big theatrical interpretation thrills, and in the right company it would be dynamite.
The other principal character is that of Carlo Gérard, the revolutionary with as strong a sense of the rights of the individual as Chénier, and also in hopeless (unreciprocated) love with the aristocratic Maddalena. He gets a great aria, ‘Nemico della patria?’ in the third act. Lucio Gallo is adequate but not much more. Yes, he sings the words well enough, but vocalism is rough and charmless and this Gérard seems a bit two-dimensional. The passion seems intermittent. Recollections of great Italian baritones (such as Giorgio Zancanaro) as experienced in the theatre remain strong in the mind’s ear and are not eclipsed here.
The many smaller roles are reasonably and characterfully taken. The Bersi and the Countess are idiomatic; Gregory Bonfatti’s spy is also a strong aural presence. Most forceful of all is veteran Russian mezzo Elena Obraztsova’s Madelon. This cameo role of the old woman who has lost her son at the Bastille in the early days of the revolution and now presents her grandson as a revolutionary fighter is one often given to female operatic stars in their twilight of their careers. Obraztsova hardly seems frail – indeed she sounds like the operatic equivalent of Dickens’s Mme Defarge, and as if she’d be personally seeing the entire tribunal to the guillotining given the chance. This is miscasting on a grand scale.
On the orchestra side there’s much to enjoy. Marco Armiliato has the pace of the piece and manages to keep the passages of padding moving so the opera does not drag unnecessarily. But the sheer sense of ‘stage’ found in other recordings is missing.
This release is certainly not for “dyed in the wool” opera enthusiasts. There are considerably more exciting, consistent, theatrical, satisfying and vocally opulent recordings of “Andrea Chénier” (first heard in 1896 at La Scala) to be found elsewhere. Perhaps the aim is to try and bring those new to the art-form into the fold in its use of a popular artist? Those who like their tenor arias sung by Bocelli might enjoy his contribution. Will they really listen repeatedly to the rest and feel challenged to venture further? At any rate it does seem a shame for Decca to rely on populism to sell a recording, especially when there are other lesser-known and better-equipped Italianate tenors that could have recorded the role, made more of a splash and done more for opera as a result.