Umberto Giordano’s main claim to fame is his 1896 verismo opera “Andrea Chénier.” The work is loosely based on the life of the French poet André Chénier (1762–1794), who was executed during the French Revolution.
The libretto was written by Luigi Illica (who also penned the script for “Tosca”) and the fabricated romantic triangle bears a resemblance to the one in the Puccini opera.
A new DVD released by Warner Classics, filmed at the Royal Opera House in London last year, stars the exciting German tenor Jonas Kaufmann in the title role.
The opera begins with Gérard (the baritone role), the servant of the Countess de Coigny, expressing contempt for the aristocracy. Right afterward, he reveals his secret passion for Maddalena, the countess’s daughter. In contrast to Gérard’s railings about injustice, the flighty young woman, preparing for a ball at her chateau, complains about having to wear uncomfortable gowns.
At the ball, Maddalena meets Andrea Chénier and asks him to improvise a poem. He starts out by describing the beauty of nature and then launches into an attack on the class system that is similar to the thoughts expressed earlier by Gérard.
Naturally, the other guests are offended, but the countess calms them down and calls for a dance to be played. Then Gérard appears with a group of hungry peasants and publicly resigns from his position. That ends the ball.
By the start of the second act, the Reign of Terror has begun. Chénier’s friend urges him to leave the country, but the poet says he received a letter from an anonymous woman asking him for help. When Chénier meets her, she turns out to be Maddalena. They declare their love, but Gérard, who has been tipped off about the meeting by a spy, bursts in and is wounded by Chénier.
Gérard does not reveal the identity of his assailant to his compatriots because he wants Chénier to protect Maddalena.
In the third act, Gérard has recovered and learns that Chénier has been arrested. Gérard drafts an indictment of the poet, but Maddelena comes to plead for her lover’s life. At the trial, Gérard admits that the allegations against Chénier are false, but the jury nevertheless renders a guilty verdict with a sentence of death.
In the last act, Chénier is writing his final poem when Maddalena comes to his prison cell. She has bribed a guard to let her be executed in the place of a female inmate. At the conclusion, the two lovers go off to the guillotine together. In opera, that qualifies as a happy ending.
One of the chief assets of the opera is that it has four famous arias. Two for the tenor lead (“Un di all’azzurro spazio” and “Come un bel di di maggio”), one for the soprano (“La mamma morta”), and one for the baritone (“Nemico della patria”). While there are other arias and duets of interest, these four are frequently recorded and performed in concerts. Recently, Anna Netrebko brought the house down at Carnegie Hall when she sang the soprano aria at the Richard Tucker Music Foundation gala.
Kaufmann looks the part of the romantic hero and he acts with conviction. His singing is, as always, tasteful, with an impressive range of colors. He certainly outdoes recent portrayals of Andrea Chénier at the Metropolitan Opera. While he is a more thoughtful musician than some of his predecessors who were famous for the role (such as Mario del Monaco and Franco Corelli), they produced a more Italianate sound.
As Maddalena, Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek demonstrates why she is in demand at the Royal Opera and around the world. Most famous for Turnage’s provocative “Anna Nicole,” she is quite versatile. Her “La mamma morta” made the required impact and her final duet with Kaufmann was quite moving.
Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic plays Gérard (as he did in the last Met revival). He brought out all the complexities of the role and sang with a robust tone.
Conductor Antonio Pappano conducted with style and director David McVicar delivered an intelligent production. He admirably tries to convey what the composer had in mind, setting the action in the proper period with an evocative set by Robert Jones.
“Andrea Chénier” may not be in the top rung of Italian operas, but the DVD is a reminder that, with the right stars, it is an engrossing experience.
Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.