Umberto Giordano was one of a number of young Italian composers who achieved one huge operatic success in the closing years of the 19th century and never repeated it, writes Ron Simpson.
Andrea Chenier was Giordano’s huge success and for a long time was firmly in the international opera house repertoire, but has now become something of a rarity although the Royal Opera House brought out a new production last year.
Watching Opera North’s thrilling production it’s not easy to account for the neglect.
‘Showpiece’ operas are somewhat out of fashion, but Chenier is much more than a vehicle for three star singers. It is also a sturdily constructed narrative (a canny libretto from Luigi lllica) full of neatly differentiated characters with plenty of opportunities to shine vocally.
Despite the nitpicking of Richard Clay in the programme, Andrea Chenier is historically pretty accurate as operas go. The poet Andre Chenier, initially a supporter of the French Revolution, was executed in 1794 in the last days of the Terror. In this version the key to the tragedy is love. The young aristocrat, Maddalena di Coigny, is loved by both Chenier and Gerard, the servant of the Coignys who becomes a leading figure in the Revolution. With some subtlety Illica and Giordano present both Chenier and Gerard as honourable men, doomed to tragedy.
Andrea Chenier is in four short acts, the first of them very different from the others. It is 1789, before the Revolution, and the Contessa di Coigny presides over an opulent party. The music often hints at 18th century elegance, Two outsiders, the bitter servant Gerard and the idealistic poet Chenier, passionately state the case for the underclass while the guests are untouched.
In Annabel Arden’s intelligently judged production, much of Act 1 is stylised, but with Act 2 the Terror is here and the opera hits hard in the verismo style. If anything, the music, especially in Act 3, is reminiscent of Puccini, the one young man from the 1890s to have had a brilliant career as an operatic composer. Giordano lacks Puccini’s lyricism, but the passion and intensity are always exciting and Oliver von Dohnanyi produces some blazing climaxes from the splendid orchestra.
Rafael Rojas, though occasionally strained at the top of his range, is wonderfully heroic as Chenier. As Gerard, Robert Hayward is equally committed and expressive and a fine trio of central performances is completed by Annemarie Kremer (Maddalena) who moves from a skittish girl complaining about tight bodices to a triumphantly sacrificial heroine in the overpowering last scene.
Outstanding among a uniformly excellent cast are two pre- and post-Revolution doubles – Fiona Kimm as the imperious Countless and the heartbreakingly patriotic old woman giving up her last remaining grandson for her country and Daniel Norman as the oily self-serving priest and the smoothly amoral revolutionary informer.