Andrea Chenier is invested with the usual operatic faithfuls of love, politics and death. But in this case they extend beyond the personal and are woven into the bloody tapestry of the French Revolution. Love, as defined by Chenier in his first great aria, a poem written by himself, is not about romantic love, but about love of country, love of a moral code of behaviour. Ordinary human love, as Chenier, (played by the great Roberto Alagna), feels for Maddalena di Coigny only has value as far as it inspires these more elevated ambitions. Chenier and Maddalena, (beautifully sung after a nervous start, by stand-in, Saio Hernandez) prepare to go together to the guillotine, dying for their principles. Indeed they exult in their death which they recognise is the truest expression of their love. ‘La nostra morte e il trionfo dell’amor!’ (Our death is the triumph of love.)

The story opens in the grand di Coigny chateau where the Countess is holding a party. It is 1789. The liveried servants prepare in a glorious set by Robert Jones where everything seems made of gold and a multitude of chandaliers sparkle above. But one servant, Gerard who is to be central to the story, is not happy. He sees the poverty and anger all around and predicts ‘E l’ora della morte.’ (It is the hour of doom.) Soon he will throw in his lot with the revolution. Sung by Greek baritone, Dimitri Platanias, Gerard has some of the most subtle and emotional arias of the opera in which Platanias never fails to perform with convincing passion.

Surprisingly perhaps, given Alagna’s lasting fame as a heroic tenor – he is singing at Covent Garden for the 100th time - Gerard sometimes seems the more arresting of the two principle characters, taking the limelight away from Chenier. In the gripping third and fourth acts the action has moved to Paris with the Revolution in full swing. Tumbrils, bearing aristocrats heading for Madame Guillotine, pass through angry sans cullottes while a lone voice sings the Marseillese. This is 1793, the tricouleur is everywhere and now Gerard has the power and Chenier who has backed the Girondistes rather than the more bloodthirsty Jacobins, is a wanted man.

Maddalena, as an aristocrat also in danger, comes to Gerard, both servant and childhood playmate, to plead for Chenier’s life. Earlier Gerard has sung the moving ‘Nemico de la patria?’ (Enemy of the people?) in which he reflects that he may no longer be a servant of the aristocracy but now he is a servant of his passions. In the most dramatically successful scene of the opera, the sensitive, thoughtful Gerard allows his worst self to emerge and attacks Maddalena: he will take her body for her lover’s life. Scarcely has Maddalena agreed to his demand when he repents. Instead he will try to help her.

But the machinery of violence, with Marat’s bust illuminated by candles and Robespierre overseeing the peoples’ court cannot be easily deflected. Andrea Chenier was once a poet hero of the people but now no amount of poetry will save his life. Only the Bastille awaits him with death at dawn. So, as Maddalena bribes her way to his side, we are back with the message of exalted love and its wished-for embrace with death. The lovers walk hand in hand to the waiting tumbril.

Andrea Chenier was first performed at La Scala in 1896. It was a major hit, the young Giordano cabling to his parents, ‘TOTAL SUCCESS.’ Chenier was a real figure, guillotined in 1794, making the opera a candidate for the fashionable verismo movement. But, much more than that, the combination of Giordano’s joined-up music and his experienced librettist, Luigo Illica’s use of the historical reality gives the story an unusual depth. This is added to further by the use of a large cast who are all given individual characteristics. The bigger roles include Bersi, (played with panache by Christine Rice), Maddalena’s friend who becomes a merveilleuse and turns to prostitution to help support Maddalena. The smaller roles include Madelon (affectingly sung by Elena Zilio) a blind widow who has lost both her son and eldest grandson to the war, yet offers to the new France her youngest son.

This is an expensive opera to produce and we are lucky that the ROH have not only an impressive cast this time round but also sets from 2015 that emphasise and extend the story. The ROH orchestra, under the baton of Daniel Oren, have no problem taking us through the subtleties of Giordano’s music where the importance of the arias is equalled by an ebb and flow of themes reflecting the tide of events.

Andrea Chenier
Music: Umberto Giordano
Libretto: Luigi Illica
Conductor: Daniel Oren
Director: David McVicar