Umberto Giordano: Andrea Chenier (1896)

Opera in four acts. Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes.

This review is of the Pavarotti, Caballe, Nucci recording.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: Drawing Room of the Comtesse de Coigny. (29 minutes)

18: The opera opens with a bang and a bouncy dancing tune that races about for some seconds as Gerard (presently the Comtesse’s butler) orders servants to put down a sofa as preparations for the evening soiree are made. His father comes in with another sofa, relieves him, and tells him that one day the heads of the rich will roll in the streets.  All this happens between long orchestral passages which seem very odd. He lectures the sofa on socio-economic inequality (ends fiery) leading to Maddalena’s popping in with her maid Bersi to  sweet but rather drab nothings. Gerard reveals his in infatuation with Maddalena to us. Madame la Comtesse shows up demanding to know the status of everything, which is now in readiness. After eight minutes of absolutely nothing happening the aristocratic guests arrive to a bombastic but short lived bit of timpani work and yet again, nothing happens. Chenier gets introduced to la Comtesse. A minor divertissement in the vein of the ballet music from Adriana Lecouvreur (only more boring) comes on, and Maddalena make a bet that she can get Chenier to say the word “love”. He does, and gets rather angry with the aristocrats, spouting out progressivist vitriol which shocks and infuriates them. It is all agreeable, but none of it lasts long enough to actually matter other than as agreeable setting music, until Chenier gives his five minute long manifesto **, a lovely piece which sticks out like Elsa’s Dream amid a sea of tuneful but ultimately just plot-forwarding recitative and ends on a series of high-B-flats which I sometimes wonder is the only reason this opera gets as many airings as it does. He tells Maddalena that she alone among the aristocrats is compassionate and leaves and la Comtesse has the orchestra strike up a gavotte which gets interrupted by an ornery chorus of working class protestors which infuriates and intimidates her. Gerard tenders his resignation and leaves. The guests continue the  gavotte as the act ends, again on a bang.

ACT 2: Cafe Hottot, Paris, five years later. (27 minutes)

1, 5, 9: Revolution isn’t so much in the air as we are in the midst of the Reign of Terror and we are surrounded by French revolutionaries. One, named Incredible, interrogates Bersi (who is now a high class hooker) on her revolutionary bonafides seeing how she used to work for the aristocracy. She responds in crashingly loud arioso * which rapidly turns to orchestral bombast. Chenier comes on gets 20 questions for his friend Roucher who warns him that Incredible is probably on his case. But Chenier is more interested in a mysterious woman ** (it’s Maddalena). Roucher responds well *, eventually turning into a mini-duet for the two men.

11: The chorus gets all excited as a procession for Robespierre comes on while Chenier and Roucher comment and Gerard gives Incredible a description of Maddalena to a soaring high strings tune which goes on for several minutes *. We get more of this from the orchestra for a while along with a lot which sounds like Lakme until Bersi sees Chenier and tells him Maddalena is coming (how? where? when?).

18: The climax of the act (and of the opera so far) is a lovely duet for Maddalena and Chenier ** in which they admit to being mutually potty for each other. Incredible spies on them. Maddalena gets attacked by Gerard who is attacked by Chenier. The revolutionary chorus returns to finish off the act.

ACT 3: Revolutionary Tribunal. (36 minutes)

0, 4: After a series of chords which sound almost like the Scarpia motif from Tosca *, Gerard  and fellow revolutionary Mathieu discuss party finances. This is followed by the first great moment in the opera as blind old Madelon delivers the last male in her family (her fifteen year old grandson) to fight in the revolutionary army ***. A bizarrely glowing  sequence handed over to a minor filler character.

9: Incredible’s flighty little aria *.

16: This is followed by Gerard going through the long process of writing up Chenier for trial and sentencing. Lots of details like how Chenier is actually Greek and born in Constantinople. He things about how low he has gone because of the revolution. Once an idealist, now he is making up false charges against an innocent man **.

23: What follows is a long dialogue between Maddalena and Gerard. Notice how up to this point we have seen Maddalena only three times before, for literally five to ten minutes at a time, and yet some how her character is supposed to be fully developed. She goes into a long biographical mono-cant ** in which she tells us all about her miserable time during the revolution. Mum was murdered in her bedroom, the castle burnt down, Bersi slept with men to make money for them to survive (nothing actually happens directly to Maddalena except getting ill and realizing she loves Chenier, odd). The vocal line is steady but the orchestra bursts in and out almost mindlessly before finally deciding on accompanying the vocal line. You will recognize this aria from a sequence in the 1993 film Philadelphia. Then this weird bassoon thing appears and Gerard yells at her about how much he wants to make love to her (rejected).

29: The trial * has everything, scurrying choristers, high drama, lots of corruption. Gerard admits to making up the charges but the revolutionary judges and the people want blood, anyone’s blood! Chenier gives his brief address before being sentenced to death, prompting screaming from Maddalena and deafening orchestration.

ACT 4: St. Lazare Prison (15 minutes)

1: There are only two highlights in this act, but both are memorable. One is an actual Chenier poem sung by our poet **.

8: Maddalena bribes the guards regarding her identity and has herself set up for guillotining. This prompts the second great moment in the opera: the final Maddalena-Chenier duet *** in which they greet death together with two glorious melodies (the first a re-vamp of Chenier’s tune from act 1, the second more lovely and brining the work to the final curtain).

COMMENTS:

I will start out by admitting that I really don’t like Giordano. I find him incredibly crude and as Sir Denis Forman points out, he has this weird tendency of switching musical key constantly. But Andrea Chenier is definitely the best of his operas in spite of all of its draw backs. The story is rather uninteresting, mostly because there is no character development at all and each tableau is a segregated entity on its own, and has a totally different mood from any of the other scenes (act 1 aristocracy vs. workers, act 2 revolution and romance, act 3 courtroom drama, act 4 romantic fate leading to death). There are a lot of characters, far more than necessary (the premiere cast included A LOT of doubling), and given the work’s brisk forward pace (its one saving grace), the score consists of a parade of agreeable but ultimately unconsummated musical ideas (with rare exceptions). Chenier himself is barely on stage (in acts one and three combined he has about twelve minutes of music) and this would be more shocking if in fact any of the other singers had much more to do, which simply is not the case. Until act four, Gerard is actually the most interesting character and has much stage time but Maddalena would be tiresome if we saw more of her even though her role is relatively small. The others generally appear in no more than two acts and oftentimes just randomly disappear. Some of them seem to serve no purpose at all.  Overall, a very weak beta.

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