By Michael Roddy
LONDON (Reuters) - German tenor Jonas Kaufmann gave his legions of fans what they pay for in a revival of Umberto Giordano's French Revolution opera "Andrea Chenier" at Covent Garden on Tuesday that took on unanticipated relevance due to recent events in France.
The 1896 opera is based on the real-life poet Andre Chenier, who was carted off to the guillotine just three days before revolution leader Maximilien de Robespierre met the same fate.
"I made my pen a glorious weapon against hypocrisy," Kaufmann, as Chenier, sang at his trial held in a room filled with citizens baying for his head.
With trappings including a huge on-stage banner saying "Citizens, our country is in danger," the timeliness of the production, which opened two weeks after members of the editorial staff of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo were gunned down by Islamist militants angered by their portrayal of the Prophet Mohammad, was hard to escape.
It was the first time in 30 years that Covent Garden put on "Chenier," and the staging by David McVicar did not stint on chandeliers and liveried servants to evoke the chateau lifestyle the mobs overthrew.
McVicar also played it straight for the courtroom and the prison, where Chenier and his lover Maddalena, sung by Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, were reunited for a last embrace before being carted off to the guillotine.
This production was all about the star singers Kaufmann and Westbroek and the rising star of Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic as Gerard, Chenier's rival for Maddalena's affections who sets a trap for the poet - which he later regrets doing - that leads to his death.
Kaufmann has the lion's share of the arias and if his voice was a shade darker than that of the great Italian tenors who have sung the role, his musicality, power and charisma won the day.
Westbroek, too, has great stage presence, but the man of the night may well have been Lucic. His gloomy, third-act aria where he sings about his power over people - including Chenier and Maddalena - because of his position as a leading Jacobin was chilling and moving at the same time.
Covent Garden's music director Antonio Pappano brought out every ounce of emotion and drama in the score of a work that is impressive as a star vehicle and clearly has a message for today.
(This story was corrected to fix day in lead)
(Michael Roddy is the entertainment editor for Reuters in Europe. The views expressed are his own.)
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)