Opera: Andrea Chenier

Royal Opera at the RFH, London

You know exactly where you are with Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chenier. Not revolutionary France, that's for sure. But a theatre (or concert hall) at the height of the Italian verismo. No sooner has the curtain risen, no sooner has the servant Gerard (a born revolutionary if ever you saw one) thunderously proclaimed his allegiance to "Her Highness, the Princess of Poverty" than (wouldn't you know it?) Maddalena - the princess of everything he despises - is once more stealing his heart. But she'll soon be wacking out ecstatic unisons with the man of her dreams, the idealistic poet Chenier, whose fate is sealed before even the first of his applause-baiting arias has bounced from the back wall of the gallery. Events move swiftly, loudly, unsubtly in verismo opera. So swiftly in Chenier that the composer sounds like he's writing the final scene in every act. Still, any opera that can so shamelessly soup up the "Marseillaise" can't be all bad.

And Chenier is not all bad. Tenors love it, of course, because they get four arias - one in each act. And they're expressly designed to incite passion and enflame desire. The audience's, that is. Love and idealism writ large - does it every time. You could see that Jose Cura was already well-primed for his task before he rose to it. Riding on the crest of his new-found reputation as the latest "fourth tenor" (isn't it time we did a recount on this?), his poet/patriot stood tall and swarthy, a tenorial colossus who knows he's made it. The dark, grainy voice was wielded with determination, the big high notes arrived at by way of that curious glottal spring-board effect which effectively adds an appoggiatura to them. There's an athleticism, an air of sport about his singing which is, of course, in the great tradition of tenor stylists, but whilst his musicianship is apparent in long phrases such as those that grace his second-act aria, "Credo a una possanza arcana", there aren't too many vocal endearments to cherish. The voice loses interest and colour and resonance in piano. The quiet lyricism of his Act 4 "nocturne" cruelly exposed his shortcomings. The voice, as yet, does not support, yield to, the finer shadings.

Maria Guleghina (the Maddalena) works hard on hers, sometimes too hard, striving always to sing on the interest as well as the capital. But this is a big, ripe voice that does not naturally succumb to those quiet levitations (nothing virginal about this Maddalena). Her strength is the impassioned delivery and, when her eyes light up in recollection of the voice that told her to go on living after the death of her mother (cue divine intervention of the opera's most fragrant tune), you had better believe that it's going to take more than the guillotine to cut this woman down.

Gerard had seen her potential, of course, and his potential was fully realised here in the figure of Anthony Michaels-Moore. This excellent singer goes from strength to strength. And it's not just the pristine quality of his lyric baritone that is currently being sought the world over, but his tremendous conviction. "Nemico della patria" was sustained with thrilling amplitude, but it was his ennobling legato at the heart of the aria that had us not just believing in, but sharing, his idealism. It stood apart as a brief, shining droplet of genuine pathos in a sea of bathos.

But didn't we just lap it all up. The conductor, Richard Armstrong, underlined the underlining with zest, the clatter of military drums, the stern pronouncements of the brass, the roar of the crowd (or was that the audience?). As cellos rosily signalled the new dawn, Armstrong exchanged knowing looks with Cura and Cura with Guleghina. "Viva la morte insiem!" ("Long live death together!"). I'll drink to that.

Repeat performance: 7.30pm Friday, RFH, SBC, London SE1 (0171-960 4242)

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