It was a cold Winter evening when I set off across the Pennines, armed only with a couple of G&Ts.
I was on my way to the Leeds Grand Theatre to see Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier by Opera North. Due to the busy schedule of a Northern Soul Opera Correspondent, I couldn’t make The Lowry performance and I desperately wanted to see this production. It was also something of a spiritual homecoming. I saw my first opera at The Grand and it opened my prejudiced eyes to the splendours therein. You could say it’s where I came out of the wardrobe.
As if in celebration, on my arrival I was ushered into the Yorkshire Post press bar and plied with white wine in a manner to which I could easily become accustomed. I had, indeed, come home. No sooner that you could say ‘drink up Mr Hamilton, I think you’ve had enough’, it was curtain up.
In the cannon of 19th century Italian opera composers such as Bellini, Verdi and Puccini, Umberto Giordano’s name comes well down the list. In fact he was considering giving the whole composing gig up when, over lunch, he was offered the commission to write Andrea Chénier. Being something of a Francophile, he took to it like a frog to water.
The story concerns a young Romantic poet who, at the time of the French Revolution, falls in love with an aristocratic lass. It is based on the true story of Andrea Chénier, a little known poet sent to the guillotine in 1794 and whose death brought literary fame and operatic celebrity. Andrea (Rafael Rojas) is invited to a party at the Contessa di Coigny’s (a fantastic Fiona Kimm) palace on the eve of the French Revolution, There he falls for her daughter Maddalena (Annemarie Kremer). The rest goes love, revolution, betrayal, arrest, guillotine, death, the end.
I thought the first two acts a tad sluggish but after the interval it really picked up as the gloom of the impending demise of the lovers raised the drama and the intensity of the performances, particularly Rojas’s Chénier. The part calls for a strong tenor and he certainly provided it. As the doomed lovers walk hand in hand toward the scaffold, the enormity of their tragedy overwhelmed me, as all great opera should.
Puccini’s Turandot is an altogether better known opera and Franco Zeffirelli’s 1986 production of it at the Metropolitan Opera in New York is considered the best ever staged. By the miracle of modern science I was able to sit in a revival of this great production as it was streamed live from a Manhattan matinee to HOME. The world class voices of Nina Stemme as Turandot, Marco Berti as Calaf and Anita Hartig as Liu as well as Zeffirelli’s design made for a fantastic, tearful experience.
But I could have done without the interval’s backstage entertainment where an Ivana Trump look-a-like (pumped up on post divorce settlement twinkies), all Upper East Side bling and Chanel, treated us to a series of toe curling interviews with the cast. The Manchester audience were laughing and shouting “no more” at the screen – led, I hasten to add, by me.
My final opera of the spring season was another streaming, this time of Verdi’s much performed La traviata from the Royal Opera House in London. It is a typical tale of rich boy meets high class Parisian hooker, rich boy falls for said hooker, rich boy’s father tells hooker off, hooker scarpers back to Paris and the party life, rich boy and dad chase hooker, whereupon (I suspect punished by God and strict 19th century morals) the fallen woman dies of TB.
Voiletta (Venera Gimadieva), Alfredo (Saimir Pirgu) and his father Giorgio Germont (Luca Salsi) sang with great beauty and performed convincingly in an intimate portrait of love killed by social hypocrisy. The annoying half-time entertainment was provided by Simon Callow.
I had an epiphany in the middle of Andrea Chénier were I stopped reading the subtitles and let the music and singing wash over me as if massaged by pure emotion. At that moment I think I finally ‘got’ opera. While not many operas have happy endings, I listen to little else these days for the pleasure it gives me.
By Robert Hamilton, Opera Correspondent