Umberto Giordano, Francesco Cilea, Ruggero Leoncavallo and Pietro Mascagni are all remembered for just one or two of their many operas, while their contemporary Giacomo Puccini swept the board. If you love opera about daily life, the honest emotions between ordinary people swept up in extraordinary situations or events, you love verismo, and you love this bunch like your own kids.
In London over the next 12 months you can see key works by all of them, starting with Giordano's Andrea Chénier in a solid production making a welcome return to the Royal Opera House. Follow this up, again at Covent Garden, with Puccini's Tosca, from next week, collect Cilea's L'Arlesiana at Opera Holland Park in the summer, see in the new year with Puccini's La Bohème at the Royal Opera House and mark Easter, still at the ROH, with Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci. That's an awful lot of tears to shed.
Roberto Alagna sings the title role in Andrea Chénier. Photo: Catherine Ashmore
Andrea Chénier peered into the human dramas inside the French Revolution long before Les Misérables took to the stage. Giordano's best-known work was a hit from its first performance at La Scala, Milan, in 1896, its much-loved score, peppered with instantly memorable arias. Here are both the lushness of late 19th-century musical taste and the aristocratic forms of the 18th century in which it is set.
The title role has been a favourite for generations of lyric tenors, including Plácido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and Jose Carreras, and in this production's unveiling at the ROH in 2015, Jonas Kaufmann. This time the poet who consorts with the privileged but whose heart is with the poor is sung by Roberto Alagna, giving on opening night his 100th performance at the Royal Opera House.
The plot is based on the true story of the French poet André Chénier, who competes with a servant, Carlo Gérard, for the love of Maddalena, a young aristocrat. The opera opens with at a lavish party thrown by the Countess di Coigny (an imperious Rosalind Plowright), where the arrival of the poet and other artists is overshadowed by news from Paris of the rising rebellion by the country's downtrodden workers.
Sondra Radvanovksy is a radiant Maddalena di Coigny. Photo: Catherine Ashmore
When the action moves to the heart of the revolution, we find that Gérard, who threw off his servant's livery and let protesters into the chateau at the end of Act One, is now a key officer in the new regime. He intends to use his new status to obtain for himself the Countess's lovely daughter Maddalena, who has already fallen for Andrea. Andrea too has joined the cause, but it considered suspicious. As the movement turns upon itself and its own, its ideals are corrupted by power.
The dynamic between brave Maddalena, heroic Andrea and devious Gérard is a striking fore-runner of the triangle of love, jealousy and cruelty in Tosca represented by the painter Cavaradossi, singer Tosca and chief of police Scarpia. Tosca came four years after Andréa Chenier, but would it have been so taut and pacy but for Giordano's exploratory spadework? I doubt it.
The relative slackness of Andrea Chénier is nipped and tucked by director David McVicar whose customarily focused characterisation and crowd scenes help shape this slightly baggy but hugely engaging piece. In Robert Jones's set, the elegant salon gives way to makeshift headquarters, and, finally a prison, for a noble ending with shades of Aïda. Verdi cast a long shadow over the Scuola Giovane.
Dmitri Platanias as republican Gérard takes advantage of Maddalena (Sondra Radvanovksy). Photo: Catherine Ashmore
As Maddalena is the tremendous American soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, whose range of expression is dazzling. In this big house she can sing a high pianissimo as sweetly as if she was whispering next to you or blossom effortlessly over the huge orchestra. Greek baritone Dimitri Platanias as the sinister Gérard is a guilty pleasure, digging deep into a black heart. And while Alagna is not at his honey-best, with a slight coarseness and intonation problems, his is still a terrific presence.
Daniel Oren conducting the terrific Royal Opera Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House could have put the lid on a little: Christine Rice as Bersi in particular has an unequal contest. But oh, those woodwind passages get under your skin.
There is so much to relish in this Andrea Chénier, and it is the perfect place to start your own verismo journey 2019/20. Collect the whole set and win hours and hours of great music.
'Andrea Chénier' is sung in Italian with English surtitles. Performances are on 20, 24, 28, 31 May; 3, 6, 9 June
|What||Andrea Chénier review , Royal Opera House|
|Where||Royal Opera House, Bow Street, Covent Garden, London, WC2E 9DD | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Covent Garden (underground)|
20 May 19 – 09 Jun 19, seven performances; times vary. Running time 2hr 45min, including interval
|Website||Click here for more information and booking|