Essay: Dramatic Performance Andrea Chenier

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Andrea Chenier

An Analysis of Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chenier in Geneva, 2011

Umberto Giordano's verismo opera Andrea Chenier was first performed a century after the French poet's death during the Reign of Terror. An exercise in Italian realism, Giordano's Andrea was a combination of Luigi Illica's "dramatically intense libretto" and the "exaggerated emphasis on effect at all costs" that characterized verismo in the last quarter of the 19th century in Italy (Grout, 2003, p. 495). Giordano's oeuvre contains several other operas, but only Andrea is still performed around the world with any regularity. This paper will give a history of the opera as well as analyze the 2011 performance in Geneva under the direction of John Fiore and John Dew, in collaboration with the Deutsche Oper Berlin and le Choeur du Grand Theatre et l'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande.

Historical Background and Cultural Context

Born in Constantinople "of a French father and a Greek mother," the historic figure of Andrea Chenier is one of, as J. Badaire (1926) states, "pure Hellenic genius." This may be true, but it is not for such genius that Andrea Chenier was put to death on the scaffold just prior to the fall of Robespierre. Chenier had been part of the moderate group of revolutionaries in Paris prior to the Terror -- but becoming disillusioned with what he saw as an increase of tyranny, the poet left Paris. However, drawn like so many others to the historic moment in time, Chenier returned and was arrested by mistake and (ironically) charged with "writing against freedom in favor of tyranny" -- an absurd accusation that needed, of course, no facts for the impatient jurors at the height of their frenzy in 1794 (Hamlet-Metz, 2006). The poet was executed along with more than three dozen others from the prison where he had languished for months prior to his trial -- but not before penning the following verses, "so similar in their essence to those Illica would write in his libretto ("Come un bel di maggio"):

As the sun's last flashing ray,

As the last cool breeze from the shore,

Cheer the close of a dying day,

Thus I strike my lyre once more.

As now by the scaffold I wait,

Each moment of time seems the last,

For the clock, like a finger of fate,

Points onward and onward fast. (Hamlet-Metz)

"Discovered" as it were some two decades later following the publishing of a complete edition of his poetry, Chenier would finally be memorialized in Giordano's opera just in time to celebrate the centennial of his execution.

Giordano's opera, however, would play fast and loose with the facts and story of the poet's life and time spent in Paris. Dramatizing the life of Andrea indeed proved an exercise in artistic license if not in outright fabrication: the poet in Giordano's work becomes a man torn by both politics and love -- and, of course, Romantically falling victim to both. What was in reality a case of mistaken identity becomes in opera a case of Romantic martyrdom -- an ironic notion considering that Giordano's opera is an attempt at Italian realism. Verismo, of course, had more to do with style than with historical facts.

Verismo and Rome

The Italian theater, of course, has a long tradition dating all the way back to the 4th century BC -- according to Livy, who reports that the Etruscans were staging dramas for Romans' entertainment at the time (Beacham 2). Roman drama, however, really came into its own with the comedic works of Plautus (3rd century) and Terence (2nd century) and the dramatic works of Seneca (1st century) who Romanized several Greek myths. In cities like Milan, whose Latin name meant "middle place," the Roman theater provided endless entertainments for the people. But as the Roman Republic became an Empire and the Empire in turn crumbled, Milan itself passed through several stages of history -- just as music coming out of Rome did. Still, in one sense, Giordano fits more in line with Seneca -- substituting sentimentality and idealism for blood, the two dramatists nonetheless display great awareness of human passions and work to stir them up.

In this sense, the Italian theater at the end of the 19th century was giving the Italian audience exactly what it wanted -- which was Romanticism in the verismo style: action backed up and supported by music -- both reinforcing the other.

The history of music in the Roman world continued once the Empire became Christian under Constantine and by the 8th century Ambrosian chant was, for example, popular in Milan. Milan, some millennium later, would then host one of the world's first great opera houses -- La Scala, following the Baroque period and bringing opera to the people. In such a line of history do we find Giordano.

Analyzing the Production: Venue and Creativity

Antoine Leboyer (2011) marvels in his review of the Geneva performance at the difference that subtitles makes in Giordano's opera. This may seem like an incidental observation -- but it is not. As Leboyer makes clear, "Giordano's music is often there to accompany the action and strongly so but one can only appreciate it if one can follow it very tightly" -- meaning that in true verismo style, the Italian opera matches music with stage emotion, forcing the music to reinforce the meaning of the drama onstage. Whether one knows the libretto or not does not alter the fact that the music is the meaning. Yet Leboyer makes the case that being able to follow along with the words does in fact bring the opera that much more to life.

When these thoughts are taken into consideration along with the production values and the overall creativity that directors Fiore and Dew bring to the Geneva performance, Giordano's Andrea proves to be a most enjoyable affair. As Leboyer affirms, the "conducting was easy and fluid and John Dew staged a lively first part full of ideas with great costumes (an integral part of the staging), lightning, and clear action without sacrificing ideas."

I would confirm Leboyer's assessment -- my only reservation would have to be with the use of the momentarily-elevated-at-an-angle stage floor, which to me seemed an unnecessary liberty in an otherwise "fluid" piece.

Immediate Impact: How It Looks and Sounds

This production of Andrea Chenier is at once both able to match the intensity of the subject and able to equate Romanticism with realism, just as much as Jonathan Miller has succeeded in doing with Puccini (a contemporary of Giordano) and La Boheme. What makes Andrea even more immediate than Puccini's most famous opera is its use of historical songs, costumes, and dances that, even though they root the piece in another time, appear on stage in such a flurry of excitement and passion that one feels at home watching the performance -- as though it were really happening. As Amanda Holden (2001) observes, "Giordano's quest for veristic naturalism led to the inclusion of the Revolutionary songs 'Ca ira,' the "Carmagnole" and the "Marseillaise," and contrasting (but historically equally accurate) 18th-century dances and pastoral music" (p. 302) -- and, for me, that makes all the difference. Such, at least, was my immediate reaction upon viewing the opera.

The four-act opera also benefits from the Grand Theatre's acoustics -- but the most memorable moments of the opera are in the work itself: everything exterior to it takes second place. For example, the characters of Madalena and Andrea represent the ideals of a time and place (revolutionary France) that is all but gone today: the embellished notions that they both extol in the first act are, of course, over-dramatic, but the way the characters move through their lines allows me to keep from growing wearing of the sentiment. Even though the two lovers espouse the "idealistic social and human creed" reflected in the Andrea's song at the end of the act, one may still root for them both, without feeling that he has compromised his dignity in doing so.

Another point that one immediately notices about this opera is the visual impact: the colors literally leap off the stage: purples contrasting with bright yellows, and violent reds lighting up the backdrop at times -- the entire opera is a colorful spectacle for the eye, and it is not at all unpleasant to witness it. These colors, observed in the costumes when the characters gather for the balls and group together for their dances, let the eye feast for a while on the visual delights of the work.

Interpretation for a Contemporary Audience

However, when it comes to interpreting the opera for a contemporary audience, it is difficult to make the themes of revolution and love resonate as they may have done (more powerfully) in late-19th century Italy. At that time, revolution was still very much in vogue, with Garibaldi still very much fresh in the minds of all. Today, revolutions (while seeming to retain their potency) have also had such a go… [END OF PREVIEW]

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