Revolutionary Peril, in Giordano's 'Andrea Chenier'

            The opera has four acts, and begins in 1789, at the very start of the French Revolution. The title character is a real life figure, a poet who was born in 1762 and died during the revolution.

            As ACT ONE opens a party is underway at the luxurious home of the Countess de Coigny, near Paris. The servant Gérard quietly expresses disgust at the wasteful lifestyle of the aristocracy and the indignity endured by the serving class. Still, he does take special notice of one particular aristocrat. Gérard is in love with the Countess's daughter, Maddalena.

            Among the party guests are a number of celebrities, including the novelist Fléville and the poet Andrea Chénier. When the Countess wants Chénier to recite some of his work, he seems reluctant. But when the beautiful young Maddalena also shows an interest, he agrees. At first, Chénier expounds on love, but soon changes the subject to politics. He compares his own, idealistic love for France to the indifference the aristocracy shows for country's common people.

            Maddalena seems moved by all this, and Gérard obviously approves. The Countess is less sympathetic. She tries to lighten the mood by having the orchestra strike up a gavotte, and urging her guests to dance. But before long, Gérard opens the chateau's doors to a group of disheveled and hungry peasants.

            Gérard then confronts the Countess openly, tearing off his servant's cloak and calling it a uniform of slavery. The disruption doesn't last long. Gérard and the peasants are ushered out of the house and the gavotte resumes, as though nothing had happened.

            For ACT TWO, things are far different. Five years have passed and the monarchy has been overthrown, with King Louis the 16th first imprisoned, and then executed. But while old injustices may have been eliminated, there are new ones to take their place. Robespierre and the Jacobins are the dominant power. The Reign of Terror has begun, and anyone who opposes the new order is dealt with severely.

            The act begins in a Paris cafe. Bersi, the Countess's former maid, has become a revolutionary, is sitting with a Jacobin spy known as The Incredible. Chénier is at another table with his friend Roucher. Though Chénier supported the revolution, he opposes the Reign of Terror, and he's now in danger.

            Roucher urges him to leave the city, but Chénier sees romance in his future. He's been getting letters from an anonymous woman, calling herself "Hope." As it turns out, Bersi is there to set up a rendezvous between Chénier and his unknown correspondent. The meeting is set for later that night.

            A group of revolutionary leaders passes by, including Robespierre himself. Among them, we see Gérard, who is now a leading Jacobin. He's also the employing The Incredible to looks for a mysterious woman often seen with Bersi.

            That evening, Chénier shows up for his meeting, with the spy looking on in secret. When the mystery woman removes her veil, he sees that she's Maddalena and they declare their love.

            Gérard then appears, alerted to the meeting by the spy. When he tries to abduct Maddalena for himself, Chenier intervenes. At first the men don't recognize each other, and when they draw swords Gérard is wounded. But as he's falling, he identifies his opponent. Gérard still admires Chenier, and generously tells him that he's in danger, and should flee.

            Chénier makes his escape just before authorities arrive. They ask Gérard who it was that attacked him. To protect Chénier, Gérard says he never got a good look at the man.

            ACT THREE begins in the Great Hall of the Revolutionary Tribunal. The leader Mathieu is entreating citizens to aid the revolution, joined by Gérard. Their appeal moves an old woman, Madelon, to let her young grandson join the army and fight for the cause. Inspired, the crowd disperses, singing the revolutionary song, "La Carmagnole."

            Gérard has sent The Incredible to track down Chénier, hoping to find Maddalena along with him. The spy now returns, saying Chénier has been detained, but there's no sign of Maddalena.   Still, the spy does have an idea. He says Chénier's detainment will surely bring Maddalena out of hiding. He also says that Gérard should officially denounce Chénier. That would result in a trial. Chénier would surely be condemned, and Gérard would have Maddalena to himself.

            Gérard is torn. He's determined to be with Maddalena. He also knows that Chénier is innocent of treason. But he's so deeply in love with Maddalena that nothing else seems to matter. So he signs the document indicting Chénier.

            Not long after, Maddalena is brought to Gérard. He declares his love, and also tells her that Chénier has been arrested and denounced. In replay, she says that since the revolution began, her life has been a horror. Her mother was killed, her home was destroyed, and only Chénier's love saved her. Now, to pay Chénier back, she's willing to give herself to Gérard, in exchange for Chénier's freedom. Gérard says he'll think about it.

            The Tribunal then begins, and Chénier is among the accused. He declares that he loves his country, and has defended it with both actions and words. His statement moves Gérard to retract his denunciation. It makes no difference. Gérard is shouted down by an angry crowd. The court finds Chénier guilty, and condemns him to death.

            In the brief final act, Chenier is preparing for his execution, and reads a final poem to his friend Roucher. When Roucher leaves, Maddalena arrives along with Gérard. Maddalena has decided she can't live without Chénier. She bribes a jailer to let her take the place of another condemned prisoner.

            Gérard leaves, hoping to persuade the authorities to spare his friends. But there's nothing he can do. The prison gates open, and after a final duet, Chénier and Maddalena are led to the guillotine as the opera ends.