Revolutionary Peril, in Giordano's 'Andrea Chenier'

WOO-1513-ANDREA-250sameLiberté, Egalité, Fraternité! That was the idealistic, and inspirational, rallying cry of the French Revolution, and the words can still inspire even today. Yet, that cry turned sour during the period in revolutionary France known as the Reign of Terror, and events of that troubled time drives the story of Umberto Giordano's fervent opera, Andrea Chenier.

            The opera's title character was a real life figure, a celebrated French poet born in 1762. At first, Chénier was a fervent supporter of the Revolutionary cause -- but that support ended with the Reign of Terror, when people were being executed in droves. Chénier protested the murders. He was arrested on trumped-up charges, and executed by guillotine in 1794, quoting poems right up to the end. Descriptions of that moment conjure a vivid scene -- tailor-made for opera.

            Eventually, Chénier's reputation faded, but his work was rediscovered in 1819, when a complete edition of his poems was released, and he immediately became a Romantic idol. Chénier's life and death inspired a number of prominent writers, including Victor Hugo and Alfred de Musset. Yet the most famous artistic legacy of Chénier's life and work might well be Giordano's opera.

Giordano wrote Andrea Chénier in 1896, when he was he was 29 years old. By then, he was a prominent member of the giovane scuola or "young school" of Italian opera composers. They're the ones most closely associated with the verismo style of opera. The giovane scuola also included Alfredo Catalani, Pietro Mascagni, Ruggero Leoncavallo and, most prominently, Giacomo Puccini.

            Giordano and Puccini also had a collaborator in common. The libretto for Andrea Chénier was written by Luigi Illica, who was also the librettist for some of Puccini's most popular operas, including La Boheme, Madame Butterfly, and Tosca.

            In turn, Tosca and Andrea Chénier share a number of key dramatic elements. Though Puccini's opera is set in Italy, and Giordano's takes place in revolutionary France, both depict times of severe political upheaval. Both also involve an intense love triangle, making for a volatile -- and decidedly operatic -- mix of politics and passion.

            On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Andrea Chénier in a production from the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, that was among the highlights of London's 2014-2015 opera season. The stars are tenor Jonas Kaufmann and soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, in a performance led by the Royal Opera's music director, Antonio Pappano.