Whilst the opera is loosely based on the unfortunate life of a similarly named poet of the period, much of the Chénier story is embellished with artistic licence. Fortunately this allows for the incorporation of it’s central romance and moments of jeopardy.
Whilst at a party, our hero (Roberto Alagna as Chénier) bemoans the corruption in Louis XVI’s government and the inescapable poverty it causes the average Frenchman (will the ruling classes ever learn?) The host’s daughter Maddalena (Sondra Radvanovsky) is impressed with his passion for social revision, whilst a footman in the household Gérard (Dimitri Platanias) is sufficiently spurred by discussion of the injustice to berate his employer and her wealthy guests for their complacency. He then leaves the household and we later learn has becomes integral to the burgeoning revolution. Five years on and King Louis has long since been parted from his head courtesy of a specially arranged appointment with the guillotine. Consequently, Robespierre now controls everything by means of The Terror, where even the likes of Chénier soon fall under suspicion of treachery in the general wave of paranoia sweeping France.
It would be fair to say that the overwhelming majority the composer’s finest lyrically dramatic moments were written for the tenor voice, but here the casting of Roberto Alagna in the title role will undoubtedly lead to disappointing comparisons with Jonas Kauffman who dazzled back in 2015 when McVicar’s production first opened. Waspish upper notes (barely attained through technique) sounded tired and underwhelming for a role of this magnitude, where tonality is essential to delivering the romance. Perhaps it is unfair to kick a man when he’s down, but Alagna has always suffered (in this reviewer’s opinion), from a marked lack of stage presence, which doesn’t help matters. Sondra Radvanovsky achieved all the powerful high notes in spades but seemed to flounder a little with tempo in (of all things) La Mamma Morta. Dimitri Plataniason the other hand, delivered Nemico della patria? as well as you’ll hear on any recording.
Conductor Daniel Oren had something of a mixed night. The orchestra is kept very busy and the pit seemed to have done all it could to give a good account of itself. However Maestro Oren must surely be more aware than most, that operatic choirs are notoriously unpredictable even in the major houses and Covent Garden is no exception. You cannot take your eyes off them for a second during any occasion when they appear on stage en masse. Quite what the ladies of the chorus were doing during the trial scene, this reviewer can only hazard a guess (overreacting and not concentrating probably), but whatever it was, they were certainly not following Mr Oren’s baton.
All in all, a mixed revival where some of the electrifying sparkle of 4 years ago already seems to have tarnished a little.