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Andrea Chénier: Modern Meanings in Tale of French Revolution

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I am asked often—too often—what my favorite opera is and I tend to come up with the same names: Don Giovanni, La Clemenza di Tito, Fidelio, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Don Carlo, Simon Boccanegra, Les Troyens, Elektra and just about every opera written by Rossini are always among the names I cite. But, when I mention Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, I find that a dismaying number of people who profess a love of opera don’t know this gem.

A so-called dramma d’ambiente storico, this opera had a successful premiere at La Scala on March 28, 1896. The librettist was Luigi Illica, who co-wrote the book for Puccini’s La Bohéme, which had premiered in Turin on February 1 of the same year. What is particular about this libretto is that there was a real André Chénier (1762-1794) a poet who was put to death during the Reign of Terror following the French Revolution. Chénier’s poetry was used in the libretto, giving his arias more beauty and pathos than one finds in certain other operas. I could not locate the famous “Improvviso” with English titles, but if you listen to José Carreras sing it, you can feel the poetry.

In decades past, this opera was more part of the mix in many theaters when Mario Del Monaco, Richard Tucker and, especially, Franco Corelli were available to sing the title role and Maria Callas, Zinka Milanov and Renata Tebaldi were singing the role of Maddalena de Coigny, the woman who leaves the superficial comfort of bourgeoise life in Paris during the French Revolution out of love for Chénier. Milanov made it her farewell to opera in April 1966, with Tucker at her side at the old Met.

There is also an excellent role for baritone, Carlo Gerard, who firmly embraces the ideals of the French Revolution and cannot see his way past his loyalty to those beliefs. Unlike Scarpia in Tosca, who is seductively evil, Gerard is more principled and reveals compassion for Maddalena, whom he loves. She, however, is devoted to Chénier. Among smaller roles, there is the old blind Madelon, who only has one moving aria as she parts with the last of her sons so he can fight for the Revolution. Many great mezzos have taken this role even though she is onstage for about five minutes.

The title role is one of the greatest of all for a tenor voice that combines warmth and ardor and a huge romantic presence. I have heard excellent interpretations from many tenors, including Domingo, Pavarotti, Ben Heppner, José Cura, Salvatore Licitra and Fabio Armiliato.

If you have been reading my articles since I began contributing to this site, you might recall that among my first pieces I described the best opera performance I have ever attended, a 1979 Andrea Chénier in Barcelona with Carreras, Montserrat Caballé and Juan Pons. Carreras is the finest Chénier I have ever seen in that he combined gorgeous singing and musicality with a poetic sensibility that is the key to this character.

When I learned that Opera Orchestra of New York (OONY) plans to perform Giordano’s opera in concert form at Avery Fisher Hall on Sunday, January 6 at 4 p.m., I cancelled all my other plans for that day. The star will be Roberto Alagna, the Parisian tenor of Sicilian origin who may well combine the historic elements of the character with a robust Italian passion. Maddalena will be Kristin Lewis, whose work I do not know, and Gerard will be George Petean, whom I just heard as a very fine Simon Boccanegra in Rome. The Madelon will be the venerable Rosalind Elias and the performance will be led by Alberto Veronesi.

The whole opera is rich in melody. All the characters are inflamed by passions both carnal and political. These co-exist better than in most operas. If you think of Don Carlo or Aïda, the characters feel they must negate their romantic feelings for reasons of state in the former and choose love over country in the latter. In Andrea Chénier, these feelings stand side by side and are resolved in the same moment as Maddalena decides to take the name of a mother who faces the guillotine, thus saving that woman’s life and dying together with Chénier, who has chosen free thought rather than aligning himself with one faction or another in the turbulent times right after the French Revolution.

You should not look at this as a narrative telling of the life of Chénier and the woman referred to in the opera as Maddalena (Madeleine) de Coigny. While he was indeed put to death, her role is largely a creation of the librettist who pushed personal and musical buttons in Italian audiences during the verismo era, when the emotions were always true even if the facts were sometimes changed. This opera is great theater and provides amazing music for the right singers.

Although Maddalena has only one solo aria, “La Mamma Morta,” it is so sensational that a dramatic soprano can bring the house down when she sings it. She wrenchingly describes how, despite the burning of her home, the death of her mother and the trauma of hunger and misery, the radiant love of the poet Chénier gives her hope. This aria became the most memorable scene in the 1993 film Philadelphia as the character played by Tom Hanks, a young attorney dying of AIDS, explains how that magical music and emotion sustains him in his grief and desperation. The aria, in effect, mirrors the situation in the film. I consider it one of the most effective uses of opera in the movies.

To experience it fully, first listen to Callas’s performance as pure music and theater. Then see how her performance of this aria and two great actors made this scene legendary in the film.

To make a total immersion in Andrea Chénier, listen to a complete recording of Richard Tucker in the title role and Mary Curtis-Verna as Maddalena.

Then watch a thrilling performance from three decades ago at the Vienna State Opera, with Plácido Domingo as Chénier, Gabriele Benackova as Maddalena, the superb and too-soon-forgotten Piero Cappuccilli as Carlo Gerard and, in a remarkable cameo, the ageless Fedora Barbieri, one of the great artists of the 1950s, as the Madelon. The wonderful conducting is by Nello Santi. 

12/31 Update: Unfortunately, the video with Plácido Domingo has been taken off YouTube. It is worth watching if you can locate it. Here are links to two other complete performances, each of which has merits. The first with Mario Del Monaco and Renata Tebaldi, is from Tokyo in 1961. It is rudimentary in visual terms but outstanding musically. The second, with José Cura and Deborah Voigt, is from Barcelona in 2007 and gives a better sense of the theatrical elements of the opera.