Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chénier is a fiery verisimo work very loosely based on the life and writings of a French poet who was guillotined during the French Revolution. The opera excitingly depicts the excesses of the French aristocracy, the idealism of the revolutionaries in their dreams of freedom, equality, and brotherhood, and the excesses of blood lust that ended the Revolution.

According to Wikipedia, André Marie Chénier (1762 – 1794) was a French poet of Greek origin, born in Modern-day Turkey. Chénier’s father was a merchant and diplomat, which offered André many opportunities, including that of living in England for a short time. His sensual, emotive poetry marks him as one of the precursors of the Romantic movement. His career was brought to an abrupt end when he was guillotined for alleged "crimes against the state", near the end of the Reign of Terror.

Indeed, Chénier returned to France from England in 1790. A monarchist believing in a constitutional monarchy for France, Chénier believed that the Revolution was already complete and that all that remained to be done was the inauguration of the reign of law. Though his political viewpoint was moderate, his tactics were dangerously aggressive, writing poetical satires, partaking in debates and contributed frequently to the Journal de Paris from November 1791 to July 1792, when he wrote his scorching iambs to Jean Marie Collot d'Herbois, “Sur les Suisses révoltés du regiment de Châteauvieux”.

On 7 March 1794 he was arrested and during the 140 days of his imprisonment he wrote a series of iambs denouncing the Convention. In prison he also composed his most famous poem, "Jeune captive", a poem at once of enchantment and of despair, inspired by the misfortunes of his fellow captive the duchesse de Fleury, née de Coigny.

Chénier might have been overlooked but for the well-meant, indignant officiousness of his father. Maximilien Robespierre, who was himself in dangerous straits, remembered Chénier as the author of the venomous verses in the Journal de Paris and sentenced him to death. Chénier was one of the last persons executed by Robespierre - Robespierre was seized and executed only three days later.

The opera is set against this backdrop and presents a love story between Chénier and Maddalena. Gérard is in love with Maddalena; in order to get her for himself, he has Chénier arrested. The aria in which he makes this fateful decision is one of the most dramatic in the baritone repertoire ("Nemico della patria"): where he cynically writes the accusations he knows to be false, then remembers how Chénier himself inspired his now-tarnished revolutionary zeal.

Upon learning of Chénier's arrest, Maddalena comes to Gérard for help, telling him of the death of her mother, the loss of her home, and how Chénier's love transformed her life. Though Gérard tries to save Chénier, the hero is condemned at the the corrupt trial, and Maddalena joins him in the prison so that they can die together.

Giordano’s musical depiction is strongly post-Romantic, with gorgeous lyricism, fervent declamatory arias, and crashingly ominous passages depicting the crowds and tribunals that sent so many to their deaths. All of the characters are strongly drawn, from Chénier, the fervent supporter of the ideals of the Revolution, Maddalena, the formerly frivolous aristocrat, and Gérard, the lackey who became a Revolutionary leader, to the bit parts of the vindictive tribunal judges and members of the crowd.

The Performance
Umberto GIORDANO (1867-1948)
Andrea Chénier (1896)
Opera in four acts, Italian libretto by Luigi Illica

Plácido Domingo, Andrea Chénier
Renata Scotto, Maddalena de Coigny
Sherrill Milnes, Carlo Gérard
National Philharmonic Orchestra and the John Alldis Choir
James Levine, condicting
(Walthamstow Town Hall, London, England, 1976)

Performance @

As I have done before, this performance is edited from one of Sean Bianco’s fine At The Opera podcasts, and I have included his spoken introductions.