A photograph of Jonas Kaufmann in front of glittering lights

Cheat Sheet: Andrea Chenier

Everything you need to know about the dramatic French Revolution opera.

Who was the composer?

Umberto Giordano, an Italian composer working during the late 1800s and early 1900s.

He was born in 1867 in Foggia in Southern Italy. He studied music in Foggia and Naples.

It was the height of the verismo period, where composers sought out real and gritty subjects to write realistic, gritty operas.

As a young man, Giordano attracted notice when he came sixth among 73 entries in a competition for one-act operas. The winner was Mascagni’s now famous Cavalleria rusticana.

His success brought him a commission from a renowned music publisher and he staged his first opera in 1892. It was a minor scandal, with a plotline about a worker who tries to reform a prostitute.

In 1896, he wrote Andrea Chénier, his first and only major hit.

He died aged 81.

An illustration of Umberto Giordano

An illustrated portrait of Umberto Giordano from L'Illustration, a French magazine published 1905. Source: Wikimedia Commons

What happens in the story?

As the French Revolution settles, the poet Andrea Chénier watches its leaders grow more and more oppressive.

Despite his wealthy upbringing, he speaks out on behalf of the poor, and attracts the attention of powerful revolutionaries.

But it is Chénier’s love for the aristocrat Maddalena that puts him most at risk. Her family’s servant, Gérard, is also in love with Maddalena, and he uses his power among the revolutionaries to take his rival down.

Who are the main players?

Andrea Chénier — a poet

Maddalena — an aristocrat who loves him

Carlo Gérard — Maddalena’s servant, in love with Maddalena

What’s the big hit?

‘La mamma morta’ is one of the most beautiful soprano arias in the repertoire.

Where have I heard that?

It has a starring role in the Tom Hanks movie Philadelphia (YouTube).

Something to listen out for

Giordano’s music is full of drama and passion.

With four impressive arias and two stunning duets for the lead tenor, it’s often performed as a showpiece for a talented tenor. But the gorgeous soprano aria ‘La mamma morta’ is probably more famous than all of the tenor arias, and there is a showstopper for the baritone as well. In other words, it’s a musical treat.

Giordano includes some music of the people. To fit with the revolutionary setting, there are a couple of revolutionary songs.

Listen out for how Giordano sometimes contrasts the aristocracy and the servants through music. Stilted, formal chords and trills parody the powdered wigs and excess of the aristocracy, while some of the most elegant, poignant music is reserved for the servants.

Conversation starters

  • André Chénier (Wikipedia) (‘Andrea’ is the Italian version of André) was a real French poet who was executed by guillotine three days before the end of the Reign of Terror (Wikipedia). But librettist Luigi Illica wrote a fictional account of his life to raise the romantic and dramatic stakes in his opera.
  • ‘La mamma morta’ is one of the most beautiful soprano arias in the repertoire. It has a starring role in the Tom Hanks movie Philadelphia.
  • For a brief moment, people thought Giordano might be the composer to inherit Verdi’s crown as the most popular and important Italian composer of his day. Unfortunately, Giordano didn’t write many hits, and it soon became clear Puccini would emerge the winner.

Andrea Chénier

New to Opera? Read our Ultimate Guide

Andrea Chénier in a Nutshell

The composer: Umberto Giordano. Italian. Late 19th century.

The music: Passionate, emotional, dramatic: a dose of melodrama in music.

The big hit: ‘La Mamma Morta’.

The setting: Before and after the French Revolution in Paris.

The history: Andrea Chénier premiered in 1896.

A quirky fact to impress your date: André Chénier was a real French poet executed during the Reign of Terror. His life in the opera is mostly fictional, however.


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