Opera North Blog

Andrea Chénier in a nutshell


Andrea Chénier at Opera North, 2016. Photo credit: Robert Workman.

All you need to know about Giordano's great opera Andrea Chénier in one place — right here!

What is the story about?

Andrea Chénier is a passionate love story of conviction and sacrifice, set against the backdrop of the turbulent real life events of the French Revolution — a time when up became down, and Parisians never knew which day might be their last.

Andrea Chénier is a poet, brought up in the lap of luxury, but hugely unhappy with the social inequality around him. He’s in love with Maddalena, a beautiful young aristocrat, but her family's servant Gérard, who resents the privileged upper classes, also harbours a deep passionate love for her.

As the opera progresses, Gérard becomes an integral player in the French Revolution and uses his new power to condemn Chénier to death. Heartbroken, Maddalena pleads with him to change his mind and redeem Chénier.  Gérard finds himself repulsed by his actions and disillusioned by the entire revolution, but are they in time to save Chénier’s life...? 

If you’re not afraid of spoilers, read more about the plot here…

Andrea Chénier at Opera North,2016. Photo credit: Robert Workman.

Who are the main characters?

Andrea Chénier — a poet
Maddalena — daughter of the Contessa di Coigny
Carlo Gérard — a servant-turned-powerful revolutionary
Contessa di Coigny — an aristocrat
Bersi — Maddalena’s maid
Roucher — a friend of Chénier

What is the music like?

Andrea Chénier is widely considered to feature some of the most magnificent lyric-dramatic music written for the tenor voice, ever. Listen to Un di all’azzuro spazio, the aria Chénier sings in Act I at the palace of the Contessa di Coigny, which is an improvised poem about the suffering of the poor. Chénier’s passion and dedication to the cause he believes in is portrayed through the music, and the listener feels his conviction.

The opera also contains the heartbreaking soprano aria La mamma morta (‘They killed my mother’), which was featured in the Oscar winning film Philadelphia (1993)

Find out about some of the 20th Century's most famous Andrea Chéniers and listen to their interpretations of some of the opera's incredible music.

What is this production like?

Director Annabel Arden’s production of Andrea Chénier is brand new, so has never been seen before! It is set firmly in the era in which the piece was written — the French Revolution, and she and designer Joanna Parker explore many themes of the Revolution, from the public's newfound passion for graffiti, to the craze of the tricolore, which appeared in every place imaginable.

The costumes are designed in sumptuously beautiful 18th Century style, but take inspiration from leading fashion designers of our own era. For example, the bodice of the Contessa di Coigny’s dress is modelled on a jacket by Versace! You can see the designer's original costume sketch below.

The set brings a more contemporary edge to the production. Three walls of iridescent silver chains form the core of the set, and these become incredibly opulent under evocative video projection.

View some of the images of the French Revolution that inspired designer Joanna Parker or see some more production photos.

A little more about the opera

Who was the composer?

Andrea Chénier is by Umberto Giordano. Giordano was born in Italy in 1867 and was a member of the ‘giovane scuola’ (‘new school’) — an up-and-coming group of young Italian composers that also included Puccini and Mascagni.

The opera as premiered in 1896, the same year as Puccini’s La Bohème, at La Scala, Milan. The libretto (text) was written by Luigi Illica, who was also Puccini’s librettist on Bohème, and also on Tosca and Madama Butterfly in the following years.

Andrea Chénier was Giordano’s first major success and propelled him to the front ranks of this group of composers. Indeed, Puccini sometimes considered him as a rival, and listening to the sheer emotional power of Chéniers music, it is easy to understand why!

What style is the opera in?

This opera is written in what is called the verismo style. Verismo means ‘realism’, from Italian vero, meaning ‘true’. Verismo dominated Italian opera of the time — Puccini, Mascagni, Leoncavallo and Giordano were all leading composers of the style.

Verismo operas focused not on gods, mythological figures, or kings and queens, but on the average contemporary man and woman and their lives, although some, including Chénier, take historical subjects. Verismo composers strove to integrate the opera's underlying drama with its music. They abandoned the strict recitative-and-aria structure of earlier opera, and instead operas were ‘through-composed’ – seamless sung text.

What is the background to the story?

Andrea Chénier is based on the life of poet André Marie Chénier (1762 —1794) who lived, wrote and died during the French Revolution. Chénier moved in aristocratic circles, and his youth had been spent in the lap of luxury. As a poet, he worked in a neo-classical style, mixing mythology with a sense of ‘individual spirit’.

However, Chénier was a progressive liberal, and although his political views were moderate, his techniques were aggressive — during the Revolution, he abandoned his gentle idylls to write uncompromising poetical satires. Tragically, his career was brought to an abrupt end when he was guillotined for ‘crimes against the state’ near the end of the Reign of Terror. In fact, Chénier was one of the last people to be executed by Robespierre.

Portrait of Andre Chénier during his captivity by Joseph-Benoît Suvée

A little extra info...

  • All the great arias in Andrea Chénier are drawn from the original poet’s work, and as such focus heavily on nature. In particular, Chénier’s final aria, 'Come un bel dì di maggio', sung as he waits to mount the scaffold,  is taken directly from Andre Chénier’s final poem. This is a work of formal beauty and moral fury comparing the sunset of his life with the end of a fine spring day, and was penned on the eve of his execution. Read a translation of Chénier’s final poem here.
  • As in many Italian operas, the tenor and baritone roles in Chénier are rivals for the soprano role’s affections (think Tosca). This led the playwright George Bernard Shaw to comment that ‘opera is when a soprano and a tenor want to make love, and are prevented from doing so by a baritone’! You will be able to read more about our own Chénier and Gérard and their Opera North on stage rivalry on our website soon.

Andrea Chénier is in 4 short acts with one interval between Acts II and III, and lasts approximately 2 hours 45 minutes in total.

For more info or to book tickets, visit the Andrea Chénier webpage.

In a Nutshell is a new blog series devised by Opera North. Look out for more coming soon!

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