Andrea Chénier, Opera by U. Giordano
Love clashes with duty, against a backdrop of one of the most tumultuous periods in European history, as Umberto Giordano’s masterpiece, Andrea Chénier, comes to the Národní divadlo, the National Theatre in Prague. Inspired by the real-life story of a poet sent to the guillotine in the final days of the Reign of Terror, Andrea Chénier is an utterly compelling portrayal of the conflicts that beset individual men and women as the ideals of the French Revolution were corrupted by its leaders.
Composed to a libretto by Luigi Illica, who will always be remembered for his long collaboration with Giacomo Puccini, Andrea Chénier was premiered at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan on 28 March 1896. Less than two months earlier, La bohème had played to audiences for the first time in Turin. Italian verismo was on the cusp of taking the musical world by storm.
The pivotal moments in Andrea Chénier are provided by the character of Gérard, a servant in an aristocratic household who rises to a position of authority in the Jacobin administration. Envious of Chénier and Maddalena’s love for one another, he denounces Chénier as an enemy of the state. However, when Maddalena begs Gérard to seek a reprieve for Chénier, he rebels against his political masters and tries to make amends for his actions.
There is something about the horror that accompanied the overthrow of the French monarchy that never ceases to fascinate us: the ideals of the Romantic era usurped by a twisted logic that led to cruelty and betrayal. Set to music, these tales seem to take on more power still.
Given the frequent brutality of its subject matter, one might be forgiven for assuming that Italian opera in the final years of the nineteenth century would have eschewed the lyricism that characterised the traditions laid down at its beginning; the era of bel canto led by Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti.
In the case of Andrea Chénier, nothing could be further from the truth. Giordano’s great achievement was in translating the sadness of the narrative into music that is unfailingly beautiful, for soloists and chorus alike, no more so than in the final scene as Maddalena and Chénier are led to the scaffold.