It's all in the arm, clearly. The Royal Opera's music director only has to wave a stick at a potboiler like Andrea Chénier and it's practically a masterpiece. Antonio Pappano's talent is a rare gift: his alchemic way with Giordano's opera is pretty much the opposite of what befell Verdi's Un ballo in maschera last month when, in lesser hands, great art became a daub.
More a star vehicle than a repertoire piece, this tale of the French Revolution is popular among top-table singers when they're casting around for a showcase. The Three Tenors all essayed the title role in their time, and now it's the turn of – who else? – Jonas Kaufmann to man the tumbrels.
The historic André Chénier, a philosophical poet, was executed at the end of the Terror when Robespierre took exception to defiant verse tracts that he continued to produce even when in prison awaiting death. Sadly, Giordano's version reduces this sharp-quilled provocateur (shades, alas, of Paris, 2015) to a romantic purveyor of showstopping arias. In the opera it's his lover who makes the grand gesture and his nemesis who chews the beef.
David McVicar's decision to give Andrea Chénier an über-realistic production is a sensible one, because it trains the attention on a story that's tangled enough as it is. Abetted by Robert Jones's solid, functional sets he keeps things simple and draws the eye where it needs to go. There are few set-pieces beyond a powerful moment in the first act when the proto-revolutionary Gérard has shed his flunky garb and a horde of sans-culottes has roared through the hermetic world of the de Coignys' ballroom. As the shaken aristocrats resume their dance, a bloodied tricolore falls upon them like a giant guillotine.
"Frock-coated and pony-tailed, Kaufmann's Chénier is a poetic Puss in Boots"
For the rest, expect an evening of straightforward tale-telling. Crowds bay, lamplighters light, a tricoteuse clacks away at her knitting needles. The opera's notional villain, Gérard, has one of the loopiest dramatic arcs in all opera, but that's what makes him plausible. Baritone Željko Lučić sings him with a wonderful dramatic amplitude and invests the character with inner conflict.
Eva-Maria Westbroek sounded too Wagnerian early on, but once Maddalena had evolved into a heroine her considerable voice found its level. In the tragic final scenes with Chénier this consummate lyric actress suggests an almost metaphysical sense of grace.
As for Kaufmann, he's in his element. Frock-coated and pony-tailed, his Chénier is a poetic Puss in Boots with a voice of liquid gold. On opening night, "Come un bel di di maggio", the condemned man's farewell poem, elicited roars of approval from buffs and adoring fans alike. Few punters are likely to feel short-changed by their leading man.
If the sum of its parts doesn't amount to an especially significant whole, there's little that Pappano or McVicar can do about that. Let's hope the experience of collaborating on Andrea Chénier prompts them to place their talents at the service of a worthier cause next time. Il trovatore, perhaps? It's been a while.