The online opera guide to ANDREA CHÉNIER
Umberto Giordano achieved a sensational success with this opera even before his thirtieth birthday. He became immortal and, together with Mascagni, Leoncavallo and Puccini, one of the four brightest stars in the “Verismo sky”.
♪ Act I
♪ Act II
♪ Act III
♪ Act IV
Luigi Illica, based on the historical figure of André Chénier.
The main roles
Andrea Chénier, writer and poet (tenor) - Gérard, servant of the Countess Coigny and later prosecutor (baritone) - Maddalena, daughter of the Countess of Coigny (soprano) - Roucher, friend of Andrea Chénier (bass) - Bersi, maid of Maddalena (mezzo-soprano).
EMI with Maria Callas and Mario del Monaco conducted by Antonino Votto and the Choir and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan. An alternative recording is Luciano Pavarotti and Montserrat Caballé conducted by Riccardo Chailly (DECCA).
History and premiere
As a young composer, Giordano was under contract for several years with the publisher Sonzogno, who chased him away with the words “that he is completely without talent”. The completely penniless Giordano was desperate and asked his friend, the then well-known composer Franchetti, to mediate. Sonzogno, who was also director of La Scala, gave the Giordano another chance. Luigi Illica wrote him a libretto in 1894 for a story about the French poet “Andrea Chénier”. Now Giordano moved to Illica in Milan and began composing under miserable conditions. At times he lived and composed in the storeroom of a funeral parlor, in whose upper floors Illica lived. He worked on the opera during the following two years. When he delivered the finished manuscript to the impresario, Sonzognos musical advisor rejected it. Giordano was devastated and contacted the now famous Pietro Mascagni, the composer of the “Cavalleria rusticana”. He was able to calm Sonzogno down who accepted the work grumbling. At this time Sonzogno was very controversial as the director of La Scala, because he had to suffer many failures with various productions and feared to land another flop with “Andrea Chénier”. Even with the successful opera “Carmen” he had suffered shipwreck. The tensions between Sonzogno and Giordano rose further when the tenor refused to sing his part and a replacement had to be found. So the atmosphere was very tense when the curtain rose in March 1896. Already the first aria had to be repeated and the performance turned out to be a grandiose triumph. Giordano had to step in front of the curtain twenty times and thus saved Sonzogno, who was overjoyed about the surprising turn of events.
Luigi Illica took the fate of the historical figure of “Andrea Chénier” as a basis and invented a love story to go with it. Roucher as well as Maddalena and Gérard are fictional characters. When Illica was working on the opera, he also was writing on “Tosca” and “La Bohème” in tandem with Giacosa. While Giacosa was the poetic “verse writer”, Illica was the lavish “storyteller”. It is astonishing how many plots and scenes he incorporated into “Andrea Chénier”: we see the noble castle of the Ancien Régime, the shepherd’s picture, street scenes in Paris, a revolutionary court, dungeon scenes, the execution scene and to these we may add the dozen stage roles. It is thanks to his imaginative power that Umberto Giordano has been able to obtain inspiring images for his compositional work.
Was it the sheer material need that inspired Giordano’s creative spirit? He offers the listener an astonishing number of great melodies, colorful scenes and great emotions. Giordano found the right tones for all scenes and roles, and at the age of 27 he was at the peak of his creative power. Since today all the tenors and sopranos who had rank and name sang the attractive parts. A pair even triggered a singer war that became famous (see further on). Thus this work became a classical “singer opera”, with all the advantages and disadvantages that this entails.
ANDREA CHÉNIER ACT I
Synopsis: 1789 in the castle of a countess. The preparations for a ball are underway. Besides many noblemen, the writer Andrea Chénier is also invited.
A short orchestral introduction describes in flowery colors the decadent opulence of the feast of the nobles during a famine winter. The servant Gerard scornfully comments on the nobility, mockingly accompanied by the courtly dance music of the orchestra. In the second part, the music tips over into a threatening mood that heralds the coming doom.
Questo azzurro sofà – Nucci / Howlett
The servant Gérard is in love with Maddalena
Synopsis: The servant Gérard hates the aristocrats, but is secretly in love with Maddalena, the Countess’s daughter.
The music changes with the arrival of Maddalena, tender harp and wind sounds accompany her. Even Gérard, whose voice can be heard in the background, has suddenly calmed down again.
Il giorno intorno – Nucci / Caballé
A tone painting of the Ancien Régime
Synopsis: The Maddalena, tied up in a tight bodice, is waiting for the ball.
An elegant, courtly motif introduces this passage, which together with the second beautiful and elated dance motif paints a wonderful musical picture of the Ancien Régime.
Soffocco, moro tutta chiusa – Tebaldi
The pastoral shepherd scene
Synopsis: A theater group performs a shepherd scene for entertainment.
A romantic play with women’s choir and accompanied by harp.
O Pastorelle, Addio
«Un di all azurro»
Synopsis: At the ball Maddalena provokes Chénier with words about love. He defended true love and expressed his contempt for the nobility, which does not care about the misery of the people.
This famous aria presents the tenor with a physical challenge. Long declamatory and powerful passages, sometimes in high pitches, challenge the tenor. The aria lasts a long 6 minutes including recitative.
You will hear this aria in two versions, one lyrical by Pavarotti and one heroic by Franco Corelli.
Let us start with Luciano Pavarotti. It is in a lyrical, warm tone.
Un di all azzuro (1) – Pavarotti/Chailly
Franco Corelli was not the tenor of lyrical nuances. Fischer (Grosse Stimmen): “His Squillo seemed to cut through steel doors … One will wait in vain for subtle effects, for values and shades with Corelli, as tenor of the victorious high-altitude beam and steel he has hardly any peer”.
Un di all azzurro (2) – Corelli/Santini
Synopsis: Gérard secretly summoned hungry peasants to the hall who start begging. The Countess has them thrown out, whereupon Gérard loudly resigns his service in the castle.
ANDREA CHÉNIER ACT II
Synopsis: Five years later. France is ruled by Robbespierre and has become a police state.
Per l’ex inferno
Synopsis: Maddalena survived the purges. She is accompanied by the faithful servant Bersi, who hires herself out as a so-called “Merveilleuse” (prostitute). She is watched suspiciously by an “Incroyable” (an informer), while a hangman’s cart with condemned to death drives by. Bersi is looking for Chénier.
Temer perché – Ewing
Chénier is in contact with an unknown
Synopsis: Chénier has learned that he is on a list of public enemies. His friend Roucher advises him to flee. He has obtained a passport, but Chénier wants to meet a stranger first, with whom he has been in correspondence for some time.
Credo a una possanza arcana – del Monaco
Synopsis: Roucher warns that the letter could be a trap.
Roucher expresses the fear that the letter could come from a “Merveilleuse”, the musical motif that sounds at the very beginning is very coquettish. Chénier’s dreams of an encounter seem to burst.
Calligrafia invero femminil! – Pavarotti / Nucci
Gérard is in search of Maddalena
Synopsis: Not far from them Gérard appears. The informer is with him. Gérard gives him the description of a woman he is looking for.
Ecco laggiu Gerard – Pavarotti / Nucci / de Palma / Krause
Synopsis: Bersi is secretly watched by the informer and has found Chénier at the meeting place. She announces to him the appearance of a lady. Roucher warns and sees it confirmed: a “merveilleuse”, but Chénier wants to talk to the lady. It darkens and a patrol lights the lamps on the bridge.
Giordano has painted two beautiful pictures in this short piece. In the first part the twilight mood and after the dialogue in the third part the so-called “Ronda” of the guards, accompanied by drums.
Non mi saluti?
The love duet
Synopsis: Maddalena appears in the clothes of a seamstress. The informer has recognized her and follows her. Now she meets Chénier and reveals herself as the woman who wrote him the letters. Chénier does not recognize her at first. When she takes off her hood, Chénier recognizes the daughter of the countess. She has lost her family and now fears for her own life. Chénier offers his help and the two confess their love to each other.
It is the ecstatic duet of two souls who recognize their love in need.
Ora e soave – Domingo / Scotto
The competition between Maria Callas and Mario del Monaco in this opera about who can sing louder in the two duets became famous. Let us listen to the first duet.
Ora e soave – Callas / Monaco
Synopsis: In the meantime Gérard has been informed by the informer and has rushed over. He gets into a duel with the stranger, while Roucher escapes with Maddalena. Gérard is wounded, but lets Chénier go when he realizes that it is the poet he had been listening to on the said ball evening.
ANDREA CHÉNIER ACT III
«Nemico della patria»
Synopsis: A few months later. Gérard learns of Chénier’s arrest. He now hopes to get his chance to get Maddalena and, despite his guilty conscience, he prepares the charge against Chénier, of whose guilt he is not convinced inwardly.
This aria and scene immediately recalls the brutal and ice-cold Scarpia. No wonder that both originate from Illica’s pen. It requires a baritone with a strong, dramatic voice. The first part of the aria is dark, the second part shows a passionate Gérard and the aria ends with an ecstatic rallentando on “tutte le genti amar”.
Listen to an impressive television recording by Giuseppe Taddei, a great singer and excellent actor. The three parts were performed by him with vocal and acting accuracy and skill. His vocal and acting stage presence in this piece is impressive.
Nemico della patria – Taddei
«La mamma morta»
Synopsis: Magdalena mourns the fate of her parents, whom she lost in the turmoil of the revolution. She seeks out Gérard and asks him to release Chénier. Gérard confesses his love to Maddalena and Maddalena offers him a night of love when he releases Chénier.
This aria by Maddalena consists of two parts. At the beginning it is a bitter indictment of the cruelties of the revolution, in the second part we hear an ecstatic love hymn. It opens with a solitary cello, which begins “Con espressione”. Maddalena starts with ten notes whispered at the same pitch “La Mamma morta”, pale and resigned. The music accelerates and filled with horror she sees before her eyes the burning house of her family. The crackling of the fire can be heard horribly in the pale tremolo of the strings. At the mention of Bersi, warmth flickers up, and shortly afterwards the tone changes back to bitterness that Bersi had to sell herself to ensure the survival of both of them. A lonely viola with a painful and comforting motif leads into the second part. The mood changes within a few bars. Maddalena sings of her love. With a beautiful passage “nei miei occhi” the heart opens up. Giordano increases the tempo and intensity several times and reaches the climax with the highest note B on “Ah io son l’amor”. At the end Maddalena falls back into the resignation of the beginning with the terrible “e vi bacia la morte” (and death kisses you).
If you know the film “Philadelphia”, you might remember how Tom Hanks explains to Denzel Washington the scene from Andrea Chenier “La mamma morta”, sung by Maria Callas.
La mamma morta (1) – Callas
You will hear a haunting interpretation second by Anna Netrebko.
La mamma morta (2) – Netrebko
«Si fui soldato» with Luciano Pavarotti
Synopsis: Chénier is on trial. He defends himself with a blazing speech. Yes, he had been a soldier whose weapon was the feather. But the defense does not help, he is sentenced to death.
It is the Chénier’s proud self-defense. The climax of the aria is on the word “Uccidi” (“killing”), he himself does not expect to come out of this story alive.
Listen to this piece in a great interpretation by Luciano Pavarotti.
Si fui soldato – Pavarotti
ANDREA CHÉNIER AKT IV
«Come un bel di di maggio» – Chénier’s great farewell aria
Synopsis: Chénier and Roucher sit in the dungeon and wait for their execution. He reads his last verses to them, which should make it easier for them to leave.
This famous aria begins in a minor key atmosphere (introduced by an infinitely sad clarinet) and changes into a passionate major ecstasy.
Listen to this scene in a beautiful, almost overwhelming interpretation by Jussi Björling. He never sang Chenier in the opera house. His interpretation convinces with the beautiful line and the melancholic Björling timbre.
Come un bel di di maggio (1) – Björling
Another interpretation by Alfred Piccaver (1883-1958).
Come un bel di di maggio (2) – Piccaver
An ecstatic finale
Synopsis: With Gérard’s help, Maddalena was able to sneak into the cell to die with Chénier. They assure themselves their eternal love and are led to the scaffold on the cart.
Rarely has the heat of the “Vicino a te” been reached in a duet. 140 bars of glowing music interspersed with ecstatic, high notes.
A magnificent duet of the two great voices from the Italy of the sixties. An ecstatic conclusion, which corresponds to the text “La nostra morte è il trionfo dell’amor” (from 4:25). is in no way inferior.
Vicino a te – Corelli / Tebaldi
Hier noch die zweite Stelle des Sängerkriegs zwischen del Monaco und Callas, die berühmt geworden ist.
Vicino a te – Callas/del Monaco
EMI with Maria Callas and Mario del Monaco conducted by Antonino Votto and the Choir and Orchestra of La Scala in Milan.
Alternatively, Luciano Pavarotti and Montserrat Caballé under the direction of Riccardo Chailly (DECCA).
Peter Lutz, opera-inside the online opera guide to ANDREA CHÉNIER from Umberto Giordano
Thanks for this truly excellent discussion and review of comparative recordings of Chenier. Deeply grateful for the wonderful hours spent reading and listening!
Beautiful review, thanks,
I would suggest the wonderful 1957 Decca edition directed by Gianadrea Gavazzeni, with Tebaldi, Del Monaco and Bastianini. Besides the top quality singers, in that version the direction is masterfully balancing voices and musi, which brings out the full political, social and romantic power of the story.
Thank you very much for your comment and the great suggestion!