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Umberto GIORDANO (1867-1948)
Andrea Chénier - Historical dramatic opera in four acts (1896)
Libretto by Luigi Illica. First performed La Scala, Milan, 28 March 1896
Andrea Chenier, poet, Placido Domingo (ten); Carlo Gérard, former servant in the Coigny household and also in love with Maddalena, Piero Cappuccilli (bar); Maddalena, in love with Chenier, Gabriella Benacková (sop); La Contessa di Coigny, Czeslawa Slania (mezzo); Madelon, Fedora Barbieri (mezzo); Un Incredible, Heinz Zednik (ten); Fléville, Paul Wolfram (bar)
Orchestra and Chorus of the Vienna State Opera/Nello Santi
Production by Otto Schenk. Sets by Rolf Glittenberg. Costumes by Milena Canorero
Recorded live at the Vienna State Opera, 30 April 1981
Video producer Otto Schenk. Sound Edwin Hausl
Picture format: NTSC/Colour/4:3
Sound formats: PCM Stereo. DTS 5.0 surround. DOLBY digital 5.0
Menu language English. Subtitles in Italian (original language), English, German, French, Spanish and Chinese.
DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON DVD VIDEO 000440 073 4070 GH [139:00]

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Umberto Giordano was the son of a pharmacist who became a musician against the wishes of his parents. After study at the Naples Conservatory he submitted his one act opera Marina in the competition won by Mascagni with Cavalleria Rusticana. His efforts were not in vain however, and the sponsoring publishers commissioned him to write a full-length opera. The result was Mala vita (1892) a full-blown verismo work of the kind then in fashion. After the failure of his next opera, Giordano lost his publisher’s sponsorship and his future as a composer looked bleak. He had however maintained the friendship of Mascagni who helped him get Andrea Chénier staged. It proved an overwhelming success at it premiere and was followed by his other notable opera, Fedora (review) in 1898 and which is also in the verismo style.

It was a prescient observer who noted that if despotism is overturned by a revolution the result is always a greater despotism, at least in the medium term. The past century has several examples that come easily to mind. The circumstances and betrayals of the French Revolution and the terror are the setting of Andrea Chénier. The story starts in the Chateau of La Contessa di Coigny as tensions between the aristocracy and the Third Estate build. Gérard, a valet of the Countess and who secretly loves the aristocratic daughter of the house, Maddalena, leaves his post to join the Revolutionaries. The poet Andrea Chénier declines to offer his services to the nobility and is admired by Maddalena. Act 2 takes place in Paris in 1794. Gérard has made a name for himself during the Revolution as has Chénier who originally joined the revolutionary side but has fallen out of favour. Maddalena, pursued as an aristocrat seeks refuge with Chénier and the two swear eternal love. They are betrayed and Chénier is arrested and accused of supporting the aristocracy. Despite having discovered the love between Chénier and Maddalena, Gerard is prepared to let Chénier escape the danger of the terror in exchange for Maddalena’s love. She is prepared to comply, at which point Gerard, moved by her self-sacrifice tries, in vain, to obtain Chénier’s release but he is condemned to death. In the prison of St. Lazare the final act that Gerard can render his friends is to bribe the jailer to let Maddalena take the place of a mother condemned to death, so that the lovers can die together.

The sets and costumes of the production are traditional and are clearly identifiable as late eighteenth century. Rolf Glittenberg’s set for the opening act in the chateau (CHs 2-9) is utterly realistic whilst the costumes are opulent. In the second act, set on the streets of Paris during the ‘terror’ (CHs 10-19), the costumes could be considered too opulent, with the erstwhile proletariat being undistinguishable from the former aristocrats in the elegance of their couture. The producer, Otto Schenk, focuses on the plight, interaction and relationships of individuals rather than portraying the chaos of the Revolution; the drama of the work benefits from that approach. The camera work also focuses on individuals, often in close up, matching the producer’s approach. However, this makes some rather dark and gloomy lighting very obvious, with the faces of singers often in shadow, particularly in the last act prison scene (CHs 30-34).

Andrea Chénier is a singer’s opera, and this performance is outstanding in respect of the principals and the several minor parts sung by members of the company. In the name part, Placido Domingo is in pristine voice, singing with virile tone, exemplary diction and acting with conviction. His act 1 aria Un di bel all’azzuro (CH 8) brings the house down. Herein lies a major problem for the viewer. The Viennese audience cheer and bray until the singer is forced, very reluctantly, to break role and acknowledge the applause. The same thing happens to Gabriella Benacková after her finely phrased La mamma morte (CH 26) and Piero Cappuccilli after his strong, long-phrased, singing of Nemico della patria when Gérard realises the Revolution has lost its way (CH 24). If Gabriella Benackova does not quite match her male colleagues in her acting, her phrasing, legato and lovely lyric singing more than compensate. In the cameo role of Madelon, Fedora Barbieri, in one of her few, and rather late roles in Vienna, sings strongly. For whatever reason some of the audience boo her at the final curtain. I doubt if it was her fault that she was never heard in Vienna in one of the great Verdi mezzo roles in which she dominated in the 1960s and later. Likewise the booing of the production and design team merely underlines the lack of taste and decorum of many of the audience. Maybe they would have preferred a production full of concepts and updated to 20th century Russia, or Kenya, or one of a dozen or more other places one could name where despotism was replaced by mass slaughter. As it is, the production and sets befit the music. The strong singing by all the participants and the idiomatic conducting of Nello Santi make this is a wholly recommendable performance for home viewing.

Robert J Farr



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