Despite the fact that it was a triumph at its debut in 1896, with 20 curtain calls and enthusiastic reviews, today Andrea Chénier is not performed very often, and the remainder of Umberto Giordano's 14 operas are forgotten, apart from Fedora. Inspired by the life of the French Poet André Chénier, the opera contains some of the most famous verismo arias, from “Un dì all’azzurro spazio” to “La mamma morta” and “Come un bel dì di Maggio”, suitable for singers in recitals and concerts.

Antonello Palombi (Andrea Chénier) © Teatro di San Carlo
Antonello Palombi (Andrea Chénier)
© Teatro di San Carlo

The story is quite well-known: poet Andrea Chénier and aristocrat Maddalena di Coigny fall in love, much to the jealousy of Carlo Gérard, a former servant in Maddalena’s home, who becomes a Revolutionary official, and uses his authority initially to threaten their happiness, but tries to save their lives – in vain.

The passionate plot is halfway between historical drama and a melodrama of love and jealousy: it also offers a disillusioned look on the historical events during the Reign of Terror established by Robespierre. The protagonists are victims of the atrocities that the Revolution has caused: “The Revolution devours its own children” says Gérard, repeating the words attributed to Danton. The ideals of “Liberté, égalité, fraternité” have not been put into practice; only love is still there, and it will make the two lovers decide to die together.

Nonetheless, beyond references to the French Revolution, Andrea Chénier remains a human drama of poignant intensity, where two lovers are caught in the crossfire of history. For this reason, Chénier has always had its devotees, as love, liberty and death, together with uproarious choruses, incandescent emotions and heart breaking melodies, form a powerful emotional force.

Great conductor Nello Santi was able to convince us that this music is among the best ever written. He encouraged impassioned singing from the cast and chorus and made the San Carlo orchestra resound and shine with profound intensity, in a way only he can do.

Chénier is a beloved role of Italian dramatic tenors, and found a commendable proponent in the tenor Antonello Palombi, whose voice at the beginning had an easy flow in high range, as in the role’s main aria "Un dì all’azzurro spazio". In the rest of the opera, however, his rendition improved very much.

Soprano Oksana Dyka took suitably to the role of Maddalena; her voice could sometimes sound over-sensitive, but she offered a convincing account of “La mamma morta”. She particularly displayed a good deep dramatic expression when she decided to take another woman’s place on the guillotine so she and Chénier could die together, thus triggering one of opera’s great duets for hopeless lovers.

Oksana Dyka (Maddalena) and Sergey Murzaev (Gérard) © Teatro di San Carlo
Oksana Dyka (Maddalena) and Sergey Murzaev (Gérard)
© Teatro di San Carlo

Most importantly, the public of San Carlo had the pleasant revelation of the wonderful voice of Russian baritone Sergey Murzaev. He gave a fine portrayal of the militant Gérard, superbly sung and acted, with a powerful and technically flawless voice. Among the supporting cast a mention is deserved by Elena Traversi’s insensitive Contessa di Coigny, while the Bersi of Giacinta Nicotra did not  impress very much.

The direction by Lamberto Puggelli, revived by Salvo Piro, showed respect for the libretto and the music. The direction, along with the sets by Paolo Bregni and costumes by Luisa Spinatelli, created a meticulous, historically credible staging, and showed once again that good opera productions are respectful to the librettist and composer's requirements, and avoid absurd modernisation and narcissistic directorial manipulations. This was appreciated by the audience, who addressed the final, warm applause to the whole production. However, a real ovation was reserved to the grand old man Nello Santi, who proved once again a virtuoso of this genre.