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.
Andrea Chénier remains popular with audiences, though it is now less frequently performed than it was during the first half of the 20th Century. One reason that the opera has stayed in the repertoire is due to the magnificent lyric-dramatic music provided by Giordano for the tenor lead, which gives a talented singer many opportunities to demonstrate his histrionic skill and flaunt his voice. Indeed, Giuseppe Borgatti's triumph in the title part at the first performance immediately propelled him to the front rank of Italian opera singers. Borgatti went on to become Italy's greatest Wagnerian tenor rather than a verismo-opera specialist.
The work was first performed at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan, on 28 March 1896 with Evelina Carrera, Giuseppe Borgatti (who replaced Alfonso Garulli at the eleventh hour) and Mario Sammarco in the leading parts of soprano, tenor and baritone respectively. Rodolfo Ferrari conducted.
Other notable first performances include those in New York at the Academy of Music on 13 November 1896; in Hamburg on 3 February 1897 under the baton of Gustav Mahler; and in London's Camden Theatre on 16 April 1903 (sung in English).
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 one or more of the part's showpiece solos.
Post-war, Franco Corelli, Richard Tucker and Mario del Monaco were the most famous interpreters of the title role during the 1950s and 1960s, while Plácido Domingo became its foremost interpreter among the next generation of tenors, 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 with mixed success; his voice was impressively powerful but did not fit the style, critics alleged.
The Keith Warner-directed production was performed in 2011 and 2012 in Bregenz, Austria, under the name of "André Chénier", using an almost 78-foot high statue of a dying Jean-Paul Marat sinking in the water, an ode to the 1793 Jacques-Louis David painting, "The Death of Marat," which depicts the murdered revolutionary slumped over in his bathtub.
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, rousing, soprano-tenor duet for the two leads as they prepare to face the guillotine.
|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||buffo or 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 jailer at St. Lazare||bass or baritone||Raffaele Terzi|
|Madelon, an old woman||mezzo-soprano||Della Rogers|
|Fouquier-Tinville, the Public Prosecutor||bass or baritone||Ettore Brancaleone|
|Dumas, Master of the Household||bass||Raffaele Terzi|
|Ladies, gentlemen, musicians, servants, soldiers - Chorus|
- Time: 1789-94.
- Place: In and around Paris.
Palace of the Countess of Coigny
Servants are preparaing for a ball. Carlo Gérard, the majordomo, is filled with indignation at the sight of his aged father, worn out by long years of heavy labor for their noble masters. Only the Countess' daughter Maddalena escapes his hatred, since he is besotted with her. Maddalena jokes with Bersi, her mulatto servant girl. Gérard notes Maddalena's beauty. The Countess rebukes Maddalena for dallying when she should be dressing for the ball.
The guests arrive. Among them is a priest who has come from Paris with news about the poor decisions of King Louis XVI's government. Also among the guests is the dashing and popular poet, Andrea Chénier.
The soirée begins with a "pastoral" performance. A chorus of shepherds and shepherdesses sing idealized rustic music and a ballet mimics a rural love story in stately court fashion. The Countess asks Chénier to improvise a poem but he refuses.
Maddelena, on a bet with friends, tries to get Chénier to recite a verse, but he refuses her also, saying that "Poetry is quite as capricious as love." This wins Maddelena's bet, which was to get Chénier to say "love". Her laughter draws the Countess' attention, and Maddelena explains.
Chénier now becomes angry. He sings of the suffering of the poor, ending with a tirade against those in power in church and state, shocking the guests. Then he hails Maddelena's beauty and proclaims that love is the soul and life of the world. Maddalena begs forgiveness. Maddelena and Chénier leave together.
The guests dance a gavotte, which is interrupted by Gérard and a crowd of ragged people who ask for food. Gérard repudiates his service, and throws his livery at the feet of the Countess. She orders them all out, and comforts herself by thoughts of her gifts to charity. The ball continues as if nothing had happened.
Café Hottot in Paris, during the Reign of Terror
Bersi, now a merveilleuse (prostitute), chats with an Incroyable. Is he a spy for Robespierre? An "observer of the public spirit," he says. Bersi asserts she has nothing hide as "a child of the Revolution".
Bersi leaves. The Incroyable records that she was with the blonde woman he is looking for, and that Chénier is at a nearby table.
Chénier's friend Roucher enters. He reminds Chénier that he is under suspicion for his association with disgraced General Dumoriez, urges him to flee, and offers him a false passport. Chénier refuses: his destiny is love, and he awaits a mysterious woman who has sent him letters. Roucher sees the last letter, and dismisses it as from a prostitute. He persuades Chénier to take the passport.
A procession of revolutionary leaders passes, including Robespierre and the former servant Gérard, who enters the café. The Incroyable reports to him about the blonde, whom Gérard has been seeking, saying that she will come to the café that night.
Bersi returns, and pleads with Roucher to keep Chénier there. She leaves for a dance with the Incroyable. Roucher persuades Chénier to leave, but the old woman Madelon tells Chénier to wait for a woman called "Speranza" (Hope); all leave, except the Incroyable, who returns and hides.
A hooded woman enters; it is "Speranza". She uncovers herself, and Chénier recognizes her as Maddalena. The Incroyable leaves to tell Gérard. Chénier and Maddalena proclaim their love in a passionate duet.
As they prepare to leave they are discovered by Gérard. Chénier sends Maddalena away with Roucher, and then wounds Gérard in a swordfight. Believing he is dying, Gérard warns Chénier to flee from the wrath of the prosecutor Fouquier-Tinville, Chénier's enemy, and asks him to save Maddalena. The Incroyable returns with soldiers and a crowd, but Gérard tells them that his assailant is unknown to him. All blame the Girondists.
The Revolutionary Tribunal The sans-culotte Mathieu calls on the people to give money for the army of the Revolution, but they refuse. Gérard, who has recovered, enters and renews the appeal. A blind woman comes in with her grandson, whom she gives to be a soldier of the Revolution.
The crowd disperses, and the Incroyable reports to Gérard that Chénier has been arrested in Luxembourg, and Maddalena will come for him. He urges Gérard to write down the charges against Chénier for his trial.
But Gérard hesitates. Alone, he muses that his Revolutionary ideals are betrayed and he is still a slave: formerly of the nobles, now of his own lust. Finally desire triumphs and he signs the indictment in a mood of cynicism. The Incroyable takes it to the Tribunal.
Maddalena enters to plead for Chénier's life. Gérard admits that he had Chénier arrested to control Maddalena. He has been in love with her since they were children, is now a powerful man, and will have his way.
Maddalena refuses: she will shout her name in the streets, and be executed as aristocrat. Maddalena sings how the mob killed her mother and burned the palace, how she escaped, and how Bersi became a prostitute to support them both. Chénier was the force that gave life back to her. So if Chénier's life must cost her body, she will yield to Gérard. Gérard is moved by her love for Chénier. He searches for the indictment to cancel it, but it has already gone.
A clerk presents the list of accused persons, including Chénier. Gérard promises Maddalena he will save Chénier.
A crowd of spectators enter, and then the judges and prisoners. One by one, the prisoners are hastily condemned. When Chénier is tried, he denies all the charges, and proclaims his honor.
Gérard says he falsely accused Chénier, but Fouquier-Tinville takes up the charges himself. Gérard defies the Tribunal: justice has become Tyranny, and "we murder our poets."
Chénier embraces Gérard, who points out Maddalena in the crowd. The Tribunal condemns Chénier to death, and he is led off with the other prisoners.
St. Lazare Prison
Chénier awaits his execution with Roucher, writing verses of his faith in truth and beauty. Roucher leaves, as Mathieu sings the Marseillaise outside.
Maddalena enters with Gérard for a last meeting with Chénier. Maddalena bribes the jailer Schmidt to let her change places with a condemned noblewoman. The lovers meet and both rejoice in their love and their coming death, which they now face together, Gérard hails their bravery and devotion, and leaves to make a last appeal to Robespierre.
As dawn approaches, Schmidt calls their names. They go to face the guillotine joined in love.
- "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) [This among the comparatively few musical passages that can be excerpted from the work's verismo flow];
- "Vivere in fretta" (To live in a hurry - Bersi);
- "Nemico della patria" (The enemy of his country - Gérard)
- "La mamma morta" (My mother died ... - Maddalena)
- Austrian Opera Recreates David's "Death of Marat" for a Revolutionary Production on Lake Constance artinfo.com
- In the famous "Opera Scene" from the 1993 film Philadelphia, the protagonist, Tom Hanks, translates into English the words of Maria Callas's recording, in Italian, of "La mamma morta"
- Warrack, John and West, Ewan, The Oxford Dictionary of Opera, 1992. ISBN 0-19-869164-5 (under "Giordano, Umberto", "Andrea Chenier" and "Borgatti, Giuseppe").