In a season in which the company’s new work comprises just one major operatic production plus a couple of musicals, Opera North’s choice alights on the most successful score by Puccini’s younger contemporary, Umberto Giordano.
Though his 1896 opera about the poet executed during the darkest days of the French Revolution possesses neither the finesse nor the structural conviction of a masterpiece by his better known rival, Giordano hits the nail on the head in terms of theatricality.
Opera North’s cast makes a strong case for the piece. Rafael Rojas certainly seizes his opportunities as Chenier, a star part demanding vibrant Latin lyricism and fluent acting. He is convincingly partnered by Annemarie Kremer as Maddalena di Coigny, the aristocrat who falls in love with Chenier and elects to share his terrible fate. Getting near to their high standard is Robert Hayward as Gerard, the Coigny’s former servant turned revolutionary, though he lacks some of their sheer vocal opulence.
Smaller roles abound in this action-packed opera. The company has persuaded several artists to double up, none more successfully than Fiona Kimm, who portrays a haughty but chic Countess di Coigny in Act I, following up in Act III with a touching account of Madelon, the elderly blind woman who offers up her only grandson to fight for the embattled revolutionary cause.
Strong on narrative values, Annabel Arden’s production includes some purely sonic extras: in between scenes we hear the sounds of revolution and prison, as well as the voice of Chenier speaking his own verse. Joanna Parker’s plain sets, though, lack both atmosphere and a clear sense of location.
But Oliver von Dohnanyi conducts a performance that shows Opera North’s orchestra on fine form, conveying the intermittent sweep of the patchy but regularly effective score.