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Andrea Chénier in a nutshell

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 set against the backdrop of 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 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 passion for her.

As the opera goes on, Gérard becomes an integral player in the French Revolution and uses his new power to condemn rival 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…?

Chorus of Opera North in Andrea Chénier, 2016 © Robert Workman

Who are the key 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
Incroyable — a spy

There is also a full chorus, who take the part of aristocratic guests, revolutionaries and more.

Rafael Rojas as Andrea Chénier and Annemarie Kremer as Maddalena, 2016 © Robert Workman

What is the music like?

Andrea Chénier features some of the most incredible music ever written for the tenor voice. In his Act I aria ‘Un di all’azzuro spazio’, an improvised poem about the suffering of the poor, Chénier’s passion for the cause he believes in is portrayed through the music, and we really feel his conviction.

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

The piece is written in the verismo style, meaning ‘realism’, from Italian vero, meaning ‘true’. It dominated Italian opera at the time, focussing not on gods or kings and queens, but on ordinary people and their gritty lives (although some, including Chénier, take historical subjects). Verismo operas are ‘through-composed’ (seamless sung text) instead of following the recitative-and-aria structure of earlier opera, and are always highly dramatic!

What is this production like?

Director Annabel Arden’s Andrea Chénier (new in 2016) is set in the era in which the piece was written — the French Revolution. She and designer Joanna Parker explore many themes of the Revolution, from the public’s new-found 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!

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 photos »

Fiona Kimm as Contessa di Coigny, 2016 © Robert Workman

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 La bohème, and also on Tosca and Madama Butterfly in the following years.

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

Umberto Giordano

Who was Andrea Chénier?

Andrea Chénier is based on the life of poet André Marie Chénier (1762–1794) who lived, wrote and died during the French Revolution. 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 turned to writing 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 © Joseph-Benoît Suvée

Did you know?

— 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 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.

— As in many Italian operas, the tenor and baritone roles in Andrea Chénier are rivals for the soprano role’s affections (think Tosca). This led the playwright George Bernard Shaw to allegedly comment that “opera is when a soprano and a tenor want to make love, and are prevented from doing so by a baritone”!


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