Composer: Umberto Giordano / Libretto: Luigi Illica
World premiere: March 28th, 1896 Teatro alla Scala, Milan
Where ever you admit to have a soft spot for „Andrea Chénier – as I do – it will usually be met with reactions ranging from a compassionate smile to raised eyebrows. Among our „Musica proibita“-operas it is surely one of the better or well known works, but Giordano´s first big „hit“ and his most popular work up to today was and is still considered rather „low-brow“. „Find a tune and build an opera around it.“, Giordano is reported to have said once – only half jokingly….
However, especially Chénier and Fedora still work on the stage. And that shows that Giordano clearly understood his business, even though his music is neither revolutionary or „outstanding“ in any aspect or the work of a genius. Chénier more than Fedora has a good story, a beautifully poetic libretto, emotional impact and inspiring music to go with it.
Giordano’s first full-length opera, Mala vita (1892), was a moderate success, his second, Regina Diaz (1894), failed. Frustrated, Sonzogno – still paying Giordano’s salary – introduced him to Luigi Illica. Illica originally had written the libretto for Alberto Franchetti, who later ceased it to Giordano.The libretto was finished in November of 1894, and Giordano began composing early the next year in Milan. At that time he courted Olga Spatz, whose family owned the Grand Hotel in Milan, where Verdi stayed during his last years. The story goes, that father Spatz asked Verdi to kindly look at the score of Andrea Chénier to find out whether Giordano would be a suitable son in law. Verdi´s verdict is said to have been: „Sposare!“ – In December 1896, six months after the world premiere Giordano and Olga Spatz were married. Upon its submission to Sonzogno in the fall of 1895, Andrea Chénier was deemed “worthless” by one senior editorial advisor, and was accepted only hesitantly.
However, the world premiere was set for 28 March 1896 at Milan´s Scala featuring Evelina Carrera, Alfonso Garulli and Mario Sammarco in the leading parts with Rodolfo Ferrari conducting. Just before the first rehearsal Garulli had renounced the demanding role of Andrea Chénier, having heard negative comments about the work. Illica, managed to persuade the young Giuseppe Borgatti to assume the role, and he is said to have learned it in only six hours, in time for the first rehearsal. (Borgatti, however recalls, that Garulli had been booed in Tosca at the Scala just some days before the Chénier-rehearsals started and decided not to take any risks….) He thus not only saved the première, but along with Evelina Carrera as Maddalena and Mario Sammarco as Gérard he scored a great personal triumph, with the audience demanding that he repeat “Improvviso”. This success opened the way to other offers at La Scala and all the other Italian stages. He also sang the role of Chénier in 1897 in the Naples première at the Teatro San Carlo. Other notable first performances include those in New York at the Academy of Music on 13 November 1896; in Hamburg on 3 February 1897 under the baton of Gustav Mahler; and in London’s Camden Theatre on 16 April 1903 (sung in English).
The story is set before and during the French Revolution. A love story between two men and a woman coming from different social classes. One can assume that what Verdi probably attracted most about the story were not so much Chénier or Maddalena, but the character of Gérard – a great challenge for any baritone – if he knows what to do of it. The oppressed and frustrated servant who has come to power and has come to know the sweet taste of its abuse for personal reasons: his idealism will soon be followed by disillusion. Just in time to save his soul he will be realizing that almost he has become one of “them”. Not that Chénier is not a rewarding role, but I find it less facetted than Gérard. It has some glorious singing ranging from the fervent “Improvviso” to the resigned “Come un bel dì di maggio”. Maddalena has some interesting aspects, too. A spoiled girl, who knows nothing about life and love, grows into a genuine heroine:
“possanza del´amor! In quel dolor cessa la donna ed ecco l´eroina…” as the Incredibile rightly predicts.