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Andrea Chénier is a verismo opera in four acts by the composer Umberto Giordano, set to an Italian libretto by Luigi Illica. It is based loosely on the life of the French poet, André Chénier (1762-1794), who was executed during the French Revolution.


Performance history

The work was first performed at the Teatro alla Scalamarker, Milanmarker, on 28 March 1896 with Evelina Carrera, Giuseppe Borgatti and Mario Sammarco in the leading parts of soprano, tenor and baritone respectively.

Other notable first performances include:

Background

Andrea Chénier remains popular with audiences, though it is now less frequently performed than in the first half of the 20th Century. One reason the opera has remained in the repertoire has been because of the magnificent lyric-dramatic music provided by Giordano for the tenor lead, which gives a talented singer many opportunities to demonstrate his skill and flaunt his voice. Indeed, Giuseppe Borgatti's triumph in the title part at the first performance propelled him to the front rank of Italian opera singers. (He went on to become Italy's greatest Wagnerian tenor rather than a verismo opera specialist.)

Apart from Borgatti, famous Cheniers in the period between the opera's premiere and the outbreak of World War II included Francesco Tamagno (who studied the work with Giordano), Giovanni Zenatello, Giovanni Martinelli, Aureliano Pertile, Francesco Merli, Beniamino Gigli, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi and Antonio Cortis. Enrico Caruso also gave a few performances as Chenier in London in 1907. All of these tenors with the exception of Borgatti have left 78 rpm recordings of some or all of the part's showpiece solos.

Franco Corelli, Richard Tucker and Mario del Monaco were undoubtedly the most famous interpreters of the title role in the 1950s and '60s, while Plácido Domingo became its foremost interpreter in the next generation of singers, although Domingo's contemporary Luciano Pavarotti also successfully sang and recorded the work. The Wagnerian tenor Ben Heppner tackled the role in New York City at a 2007 Metropolitan Opera revival but with mixed success; his voice was impressively powerful but did not fit the style.

In addition to four arias and ariosos for the principal tenor (Un di all'azzuro spazio; Io non amato ancor; Si, fui soldato and Come un bel di di maggio), the opera contains a well-known aria (La mamma morta) for the soprano heroine, which was featured in the film Philadelphia (the Maria Callas version is used on the soundtrack). Also worth noting are the baritone's expressive monologue Nemico della Patria and the final, soprano-tenor duet for the two leads as they prepare to face the guillotine.

Roles

Role Voice type Premiere Cast, March 28, 1896
(Conductor: Rodolfo Ferrari)
Andrea Chénier, a poet tenor Giuseppe Borgatti
Carlo Gérard, a servant baritone Mario Sammarco
Maddalena de Coigny soprano Evelina Carrera
Bersi, her maid mezzo-soprano Maddalena Ticci
La comtesse di Coigny mezzo-soprano Della Rogers
Pietro Fléville, a novelist bass Gaetano Roveri
Mathieu, a sans-culotte baritone Michele Wigley
The Abbé, a poet tenor Enrico Giordano
The Incredible, a spy tenor Enrico Giordano
Roucher, a friend of Chénier bass or baritone Gaetano Roveri
Schmidt, a gaoler at St. Lazare baritone Raffaele Terzi
Madelon, an old woman mezzo-soprano Della Rogers
Fouquier Tinville, the Public Prosecutor bass or baritone Ettore Brancaleone
Master of the Household bass Raffaele Terzi
Ladies, gentlemen, musicians, servants, soldiers - Chorus


Synopsis

Setting

Time: 1789-93.
Place: In and around Paris.


Act I

The servants of the Countess of Coigny are preparing for a ball. Among them is Gérard, who is filled with indignation at the sight of his aged father suffering as the result of long years of abusive labor for the aristocrats. When the guests have arrived, a typical eighteenth century court pastoral with the chorus, dressed as shepherds and shepherdesses, singing idealized rustic music and the ballet mimicking a rural love story in stately court fashion. Among the guests is the dashingly popular poet, Andrea Chénier. When the Countess asks him to improvise a poem he refuses initially; but when her beautiful daughter, Maddalena, pleads with him he consents. Maddalena flirtatiously suggests the subject “Love,” but he soon forgets this, and sings of the misery and suffering of the poor instead which leads to a tirade against those in power in church and state. With the exception of Maddalena, the ball's privileged guests are outraged by Chénier's idealistic social and human creed. Gérard appears leading a crowd of ragged men and women and they are summarily ordered to leave the castle. Outraged, Chénier follows them.

Act II

Chénier is now a revolutionary activist and a wanted man. He is advised to flee by his friend Roucher, who has acquired a passport he can use. Chénier, however, has fallen in love with Maddalena and refuses to leave without her. Coincidentally, Maddalena soon arrives having sneaked away from her family with the desire of joining the revolution. The lovers rejoice in each other's company briefly but are interrupted when they are discovered by Gérard, who is also infatuated with Maddalena. They fight over her with swords and Gérard is wounded. Believing he is dying, he warns Chénier to flee from the wrath of his revolutionary enemies, and asks him to save Maddalena also. When a mob arrives on the scene a few minutes later, Gérard tells them that his assailant is unknown to him.

Act III

Gérard has recovered and is presiding over a revolutionary tribunal. A spy announces Chénier’s arrest for having dared criticize the cruelty of the powerful revolutionary leader Robespierre. This is too good an opportunity to make away with a rival, and as he is about to put his signature to the fatal document, he laughingly asks himself, “An enemy of his country?” ... he knows well that is the standard charge against one’s personal enemies. Yet he hesitates for a moment recalling that it was Chénier’s inspired verse that first awakened his own patriotism . . . now to satisfy his passions he sacrifices a friend. The struggle of honor and desire is beautifully expressed in the music ... a bit of the Marseillaise is suggestively quoted by the orchestra. Finally desire triumphs and Gérard signs in a mood of cynicism.

Hurried before the tribunal, Chénier pleads for himself vehemently, saying that he, a soldier, fought for his country; if he must die, let him die fighting for it, not shamefully executed. Maddalena, whose mother has meanwhile perished, also appears. She offers to give herself to Gérard to save Chénier’s life. Gérard then pleads for the poet; but it is now too late. The mob thirsts for blood.

Act IV

While confined in the gloomy St. Lazare prison, Chénier awaits his execution. He spends his time writing verses of poetry which express his faith in truth and beauty. Meanwhile, Maddalena bribes her way into the prison. She is ushered in to see Chénier by Gérard. The lovers have a brief tender moment before making one more failed appeal to Robespierre for a pardon. At dawn, Chénier is due to be beheaded. Unable to live without her love, Maddalena takes the place of a condemned woman and is guillotined with her lover.

Noted arias

  • "Un dì all'azzuro spazio", also known as "L'improvviso" (One day in azure space - Chénier);
  • "Come un bel dì di Maggio" (Like a beautiful day in May - Chénier) (among the comparatively few passages that can be excerpted from the work's verismo flow);
  • "Vivere in fretta" (To live in a hurry - Bersi);
  • "La mamma morta" (My mother died ... - Maddalena); and
  • "Nemico della patria" (Enemy of the fatherland - Gérard)


Recordings

See Andrea Chénier discography.


Sources

  • The Oxford Dictionary of Opera, by John Warrack and Ewan West (1992), 782 pages, ISBN 0-19-869164-5 (under "Giordano, Umberto", "Andrea Chenier" and "Borgatti, Giuseppe").


Cultural reference



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