‘Andrea Chenier’, Umberto Giordano’s fourth opera and his only opera to achieve lasting popularity, premiered at La Scala, Milan in March 1896. It was a tremendous success. It was first performed in Ireland, by The Dublin Grand opera Society, in 1957. I first saw it, given by the same DGOS, in Dublin in 1976, and it was an exciting, lovely production. The libretto is by Luigi Illica, a prolific librettist, who wrote or co-wrote the libretti for four Puccini operas, ‘La Boheme’ ‘Madam Butterfly’ ‘Manon Lescaut’ and ‘Tosca’. The great baritone, Mario Sammarco, who often sang and recorded with John McCormack, sang on the opening night. Beniamino Gigli, one of the most renowned Cheniers, sang in the opera’s premiere at the Metropolitan in 1921; it was so popular there that it was performed there for thirteen consecutive seasons – a rare distinction.
‘Andrea Chenier’ was performed many times with a trio of principals that can seldom have been bettered: Sammarco, the matchless Emmy Destinn and the immortal Enrico Carudo. Margaret Burke-Sheridan, from Co Mayo, Puccini’s favourite ‘Butterfly’, was a celebrated Maddalena, singing it many times with Gigli. She has left us lovely recordings from the opera.
Andrea Chenier, born in Constantinople on October, 1762, was the son of French parents. At three years of age he returned to France and remained there for the rest of his life. He was a poet of revolutionary leanings. The opera is based on events in his life. Maddalena, daughter of a Countess, is attracted by the sincerity and passion of Chenier, a harsh critic of the aristocracy. There are also some rebellious peasants, led by the Countess’s butler, Gerard. Five years elapse and Chenier is now disenchanted by the violent excesses of the Revolution. Friends advise him to flee danger, but he tells them that he received a note from a woman. They meet at her request and fall in love. Gerard, who also loves Maddalena and is now Robespierre’s spy, tries to abduct her. Chenier is arrested and Gerard signs his indictment. … And thus, this passionate, tumultuous and moving opera proceeds to its marvellous climax.
Matthew Boyden, author of “Opera: The Rough Guide” is a great ‘fan’ of this opera, and of its thrilling qualities. He writes of “the splendour of Giordano’s music … Chenier’s terrifyingly difficult role, a cornucopia of heart-tugging melodies and show-stopping climaxes … through a succession of magnificent arias, duets and monologues, to the concluding dam-buster of a duet with Maddalena.” He concludes: – “‘Andrea Chenier’ contains more than a dozen memorable arias and duets, and the opera’s absence from the stage has more to do with a dearth of genuine heroic tenors than with any intrinsic musical weakness”.
Apart from the opera’s own merits, to have the Anna Netrebko (one of today’s genuine greats of the operatic stage) singing the leading female role makes this a not-to-be-missed screening. I have seen her live in the opera house on a number of occasions and she never disappointed. Her Lucia in Donizetti’s opera a few years back was memorable. I look forward eagerly to a marvellous performance from La Scala, its spiritual home.
Fogra: On Sunday, December 31st, (the day following our “Andrea Chenier”) at 4pm, we have The Berlin Philharmonic New Year’s Eve Gala Concert. Along with the usual delights from what is, for me, this Rolls Royce of an Orchestra, we have Mezzo Soprano, Joyce di Donato, singing some Richard Strauss songs. Di Donato is a singing treasure and no serious lover of great singing will lightly pass up the chance to hear her sing. What an ideal way to warm up for a great musical New Year! Unmissable.
Anna Netrebko in “Andrea Chenier” From La Scala, Milam Saturday 30th Dec @3pm