On ‘Andrea Chenier’ by the Royal Opera House

‘Revolution devours its children’ – sings Gerard, a former servant, now a celebrated citizen amidst a new era during the French revolution. There are no happy endings, apart from death in unity and death for love and ideas.

This opera by Umberto Giordano is as fast-paced, feverish and incendiary as the times of the French revolution its set in. It hasn’t been produced here for 30 years because the best-class singers who can do it justice only come once in a generation. Luckily for us, this time is now and this singer is Jonas Kaufmann – his performance was out of this world, absolutely the best it could be. In fact every one is this opera was great- Zeljko Lucic, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Elena Zilio – the cast was simply perfect. However, just singing praises is boring – to the story!

This story could not be more relevant. Chenier is being condemned and killed for his satirical poems about the French Revolution. Just this year the world was terrified by the killings of cartoonists in France – murdered for their satire. There is nothing new under the sun.

The past few years we’ve been observing revolutions all over Middle East. The West got very excited, the fight for democracy, etc. However, revolutions lead to civil wars, civil wars lead to terror, neighbours, friends, killing each other. Whoever wins isn’t necessarily going to be merciful and even if they are, they have blood of thousands on their hands. Chenier starts by supporting the revolution but after seeing its terrors, he changes his mind. What matters in the end is love. Revolution has not freed Gerard either, his passion in the end was stronger – ‘it is a mere change of masters.’ While in this context he means the master – aristocracy to the master – passion, I interpret it further to be a transition from the master – aristocracy to the master – the mob. It is easy to fall out of their favour, anyone can be ‘the enemy of the state’, this ‘justice’ is also cruel to those who don’t agree with the current masters. Gerard calls the mob ‘blood-thirsty villains’. Indeed they are scary in the opera, they can and will devour all on their way: poets, lovers, mothers.

Ultimately, however, this is a love story. Revolution may be glorious and epic but ‘the flame that lights the universe is love.’ I think with everything that’s going on the world, this can be a good lesson to us all.

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