One could be forgiven for imagining that Giordano is a service station on the M5 but Umberto Giordano was, in fact, an Italian composer of verismo operas. Andrea Chénier dates from 1896 and has a libretto by Luigi Illica, better known for La Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. Not surprisingly then, the libretto is the best thing about this opera. It tells a good story in the tight four act, two-hour structure that is familiar from Illica's other works. In fact, in a world of stupid opera plots, the libretto of Andrea Chénier would be a good candidate for the title of most intelligent opera ever.
Sadly, Giordano's music is not of the same standard. It is at best workmanlike. Although it offers plenty of opportunities for star performers to sing their hearts out there is nothing that you can actually hum as you go home from the opera house. Jonas Kaufmann and Eva Maria Westbroek give their all as the tormented poet Chénier and his aristocratic lover Maddalena but for me, the star is baritone eljko Lučić as the mentally-tortured servant Gérard.
The story starts in pre-revolutionary France. There is a ball at the house of an aristocratic family. Gérard, the butler, despises his employers and pities his elderly father: "For sixty years, father, you have been in service and fathered slaves". The poet Andrea Chénier arrives and Maddalena is immediately attracted to him. She wants to hear some of his poetry but, at first, he says he is not in the mood. Finally he relents and sings a song of love for his country, to the disgust of his fellow aristos. The ball ends in disarray with the news that the rebels are at the gates. Gérard throws off his livery and lets the rebels in. Rosalind Plowright, in a delicious cameo as the Contessa, delivers the best line in the opera: "That Gérard ruined by reading".
Six years later, Gérard is a leader of the revolution. Chénier is on the run and Maddalena is in hiding. Maddalena is captured and offers Gerard her body if it will save Chénier's life. There are shades of Tosca here but Gérard is a more complex character than Scarpia. He actually loves Maddalena and, for her sake, defends Chénier at his eventual trial. To no avail of course. Chénier is sentenced to the guillotine but Maddalena swaps places with another prisoner so that she can share her lover's fate. Shades of Aida here but the last scene as the doomed pair pledge their love is very moving.
I have seen the 1980's productions of Chénier, starring Plácido Domingo and Jose Carréras and like this David McVicar production they were both opulently and traditionally staged. The plot would lend itself to being staged in modern-day Syria but, fortunately no- one has thought of this yet. This is a fascinating production of an opera which is much more than a star vehicle. There are 23 named singing roles and also a lively chorus that is particularly effective in the trial scene.
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