Andrea Chénier: Modern Meanings in Tale of French Revolution

Friday, December 28, 2012 - 12:00 AM

Ben Heppner in the title role of 'Andrea Chenier' in 2006 Ben Heppner in the title role of 'Andrea Chenier' in 2006 (Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera)

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.


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Comments [11]

Barry Morentz from New YOrk City

From the moment I heard Corelli sing the Improvisso on the recording more than 40 years ago I was totally blown away by this opera. It has everything! Fantastic arias that live in your memory, fine choral writing, exciting orchestration, and a great dramatic urgency that holds you from start to finish.Giordano is so cavalierly dismissed by the so-called "cognoscenti" who dissolve into paroxysms of ecstasy over the likes of The Nose or Death in Venice. Andrea Chenier is the definition of exciting opera that delivers on every level.

Mar. 20 2013 04:43 PM

Chénier is a great opera - the composition is unique when one is listening into the details. Besides great singers one does need a very dedicated conductor. I did enjoy immensely the production on the lake at Bregenz in summer 2011 and 2012. Keith Warner did a wonderful job and Ulf Schirmer with the Vienna Symphony Orchestra did bring each note out to shine. Outdoors Giordano’s opera has great impact. I do like the production from Bologna 2006 with Cura as well. Cura is a very convincing Chénier in this production with a great stage presence. My favorite recording is the one with Tucker mentioned above also because the conductor is sensational.

Dec. 30 2012 07:09 AM
beachsiggy from underwater at the NJ shore

Great article, wonderful opera - long one of my favorites, since hearing Correlli sing it, long, long ago. Too sad that your third video got zapped by the copyright folk - that is probably the absolute best Chenier I've ever seen or heard. Needs desperately to be brought out on commercial DVD!

And now we have such a great crop of young tenors who can sing this - Herr Gelb, can you hear me? Bring back Chenier!!!!

Dec. 29 2012 01:30 PM
Madison from Manhattan

Fred, it's "passionate emotionalism" that has centered my 54 year love of opera listening. (I think the Carreras live "Improvviso" you mentioned is the one still available on Youtube).

As for being hooked on opera for the first time, did you know that in the 1950's in the IND subway station at 42nd St. and 8th Ave.,in a short arcade filled with pin ball and skee ball machines, at the end of the passageway just before turning to go down to the trains, there was an operatic juke box?! Coming in from Brooklyn one afternoon after classes, an opera loving friend of mine put in a nickel and said "listen to this". I heard a voice come out with a stunning beauty I had never heard before and was instantly overwhelmed.. It turned out to be Ferruccio Tagliavini singing "m'appari".A few years later I went to the Met for the first time and heard Bjoerling twice that first week.Love your articles.

Dec. 29 2012 12:03 PM
Peter Danish from Nyack, NY

Thanks for the wonderful article, Fred! I wanted to add, annecdotally, that I had the pleasure about a decade ago to sit thru several of the orchestra rehearsals for Chenier. I noticed something that I never had previously - the musical underscoring for the opera could easily have been a symphony all its own! It was remarkable beautiful, complex, layered and deeply moving. I don't think most listeners even notice some of the those ravishing touches that the composer put in, as we are listening to the singing.

Thanks again for all of your articles!

Dec. 28 2012 09:22 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

ANDREA CHENIER is one opera that has something for every voice fach and even the patriotic Mother's five minute aria is a familiar choice by stars who would NEVER accept a comprimario role. The fact that the GREAT HISTORICAL FRENCH REVOLUTION ERA MUSICAL LES MISERABLES IS ALSO IN CINEMATIC GRANDEUR AND EXPERIENCING RECORD BOX OFFICE POINTS UP THE PUBLIC'S IDENTIFYING WITH AND INTEREST IN LIBERTY AND REALIZING THE CORRUPTION AND EVIL POSSIBLE WITH GOVERNMENTS. In everyone there exists a knowing or merely absorbing judgment on people, places, food, ideas and tyhe panoply of objects that surround ius from birth on. Osmosis features strongly on our prejudices, loves and hates. I have sung in opera, 4 SOLO Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall concerts [on Valhalla Records CDs, night clubs, radio and TV, singing in every format classical and pop, folk, rock, spirituals, blues, lieder, oratorio, and operetta, but never entertained the notion of doing rap or country music or hip hop. Artur Rubinstein was asked why he did not play much modern music. He honestly repeated, "I don't feel it." That's my response to friendly requests for me to sing music that I do not relish performing. "Chacon a son gout" . I am a romantischer heldentenor. I have sung four solo concerts in the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall. As part of my Ten Language Solo Debut concert at the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall, I opened my three hour concert with the Invocazione di Orfeo from Jacopo Peri's opera EURIDICE composed in 1600, the first opera, composed in the same year as Shakespeare wrote HAMLET. It, and from the same concert, can be heard my singing Florestan's "Gott, welch Dunkel hier ! from Beethoven's FIDELIO and "Sound an Alarm" from Handel's JUDAS MACXCABAEUS in the live performance on my three websites,, ,, and It received rave critical notices in newspapers and magazines. My voice teachers were the legendary MET OPERA singers Alexander Kipnis, Friedrich Schorr, Frieda Hempel, Martial Singher, John Brownlee, Karin Branzell and Margarete Matzenauer. As an opera composer myself ["Shakespeare" and "The Political Shakespeare"] I fully comprehend the assumed urgency of recognition of the still living. I am the director of the Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute in Boonton, NJ where I train actors in all the Shakespeare roles and big-voiced singers in all the Wagner opera roles. My singing of TRISTAN, GOTTERDAMMERUNG SIEGFRIED, SIEGFRIED, SIEGMUND, RIENZI, LOHENGRIN, WALTHER VON STOLZING PARSIFAL, ELEAZAR, FEDERICO, ORFEO and OTELLO can also be heard at RECORDED SELECTIONS on my three websites.

Dec. 28 2012 08:22 AM

Dec. 28 2012 09:04 AM
Fred Plotkin from New York

Thanks, loyal readers, particularly Mr. Cerame, whom I am reading for the first time in these pages. I think some operas go in and out of fashion based on whether there are singers who can do it (for Andrea Chénier, there are) but also based on the spirit of the times. I find that some singers and many audience members recoil from the passionate emotionalism of this opera, which is unfortunate. Mr Cerame triggered an idea for a future column by me: Operas that got us hooked early on but also those works we may not have liked but now do. I had several works get me hooked very early on. The one I did not care for at first was Madama Butterfly, which I saw when I was 19 or 20 in Bologna. But now I think it is a masterpiece. Andrea Chénier, which I saw in the same period, knocked me out from the first moment and I love it more than ever. One point I did not put in my article, because I did not know it: Roberto Alagna will make his role debut in this opera when he performs it on January 6.

Dec. 28 2012 12:26 AM
Ted Cerame from Perris, California

Thank you Mr. Plotkin. Please do not feel so bad that people in your circle and the greater cultural areas of New York and the world do not know Andrea Chenier. I am a Brooklynite with an Italian heart yet I have lived for a long time in a region of the West Coast where not just Masetro Giodano's opera is unknown but neither are any of the other composers you mentioned in your article, nor for that matter any opera. Therefore for many decades I have sat entirely alone in my room listening in to what I have come to call, "Saturday at the Met."

The fact is that of all the minorities opera lovers are at once the smallest though the most dedicated. It has always been so and it shall always be so. If one is not born with the ears to hear the songs of the earth than that person will go through life not enriched by the songs of the earth.
So it goes for Beauty of all forms; beauty which inspires and uplifts the human spirit to ever learn, appreciate and improve music, and the Quality of Life.

As others have reported to you I also have known and dearly loved Andrea Chenier for many years. Opera like life is a growing process. One key form of learning is through experiance. Perhaps one reason many growing opera lovers have not yet learned about this opera is because it is not performed at the Met often enough and for that matter performed at the other large houses across this Country.

Finally touching upon growing, our intellectual grasp of operas increases with age, reading and exposure to more and more operas. Many younger folks that are born with the ears to hear great music at first do not care for Wagner. But as we get older sooner or later being exposed to more and different operas one fine day the magic of Wagner clicks on and then we cannot get enough of his music. And as with all other master works at some point in listening we declare, "This is the greatest opera!" yet upon the following Saturday or at the next opera experiance be it bell canto or any other style we suddenly exclaim, "This is the greatest opera!" Then one day we realize that each composer made his or her contribution fine music.

Thank you once again for helping all of us better understand and improve upon our appreciatation of the ultimate of all music, great Opera.

Happy Holidays,

Ted Cerame

Dec. 27 2012 05:11 PM

I love this opera as well. What could express more visceral passion than "Vicino a te". Poetry, idealism and undying love in stirring words and music- perfectly romantic. Thanks, Fred, for writing about this opera.

Dec. 27 2012 01:19 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Fine article Fred. I,too,love this opera. The scene with the crowd waiting on the bridge for Robespierre to cross has some glorious music and too brief. This opera does not deserve to be neglected as it is.

Dec. 27 2012 09:53 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

One choral moment that always gives me gooseflesh begins with "Viva Robespierre! Eviva!" (Allegro Moderato, page 147 in the Dover edition of the Sanzogno Full Score) with descants sung by Andrea Chenier, Gerard, and Incredibile. What's more, it cadences with the last six notes of "La Marseillaise"! For me, there's not one dull moment or lack of inspiration in the entire opera. Beniamino Gigli chose this opera as the one he appeared in for the first time in major opera houses, I understand. His La Scala recording conducted by Oliviera de Fabritiis shows why. And the two arias for Gerard, "Son sessant'anni" in Act I and "Nemico della patria?!" in Act III, especially if the baritone is the like of Ettore Bastianini, are also nothing less than thrilling. He's the Gerard in the recording with Mario del Monaco and Renata Tebaldi with Gianandrea Gavazzeni conducting the L'Accademia di Santa Cecilia forces. Come one, come all to the upcoming concert version of "Andrea Chenier". If you're hearing it for the first time, I'm envious.

Dec. 27 2012 04:24 AM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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