Article by James Naughtie
The style was the rage of the last few years of the nineteenth century in Italy, a fin-de-siecle fashion for rustics, ruffians and raw emotion. As if in preparation for the movies a generation later, operas began to deal with the grainy messiness of life, presenting their characters as flesh-and-blood characters we might know. Giordano was swept up in the style, but Andrea Chénier seems slightly apart from the crowd.
It’s as if the composer is reluctant to leave the grand themes of the past. The low life is mostly off-stage. The melodrama is political at least as much as it is domestic. Yet though we see a poet caught up in historical events, and the opera makes gestures to familiar themes of the past, this is the kind of drama that the crowds in the ‘90s were flocking to see and hear.
The wellspring of verismo was that little Sicilian short story by one Giovanni Verga which inspired Mascagni to produce Cavalleria Rusticana. Later came Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci, its partner for life, and they remain the essential evidence of what the verismo style produced – an unashamed simplicity that revelled in its emotional directness. Verdi, moving towards the end of his life, liked Cav, saying that Mascagni had invented “a most effective genre – short operas without pointless longueurs”. Leaving aside the fact that there are many short operas from the turn of the century that still manage to incorporate longueurs, and lots of pointlessness (brevity being no guarantee of taste or genius). Verdi understood that there was something in the speed and the cut of these plots that gave the operas a certain energy.
In that way, Andrea Chénier does, after all, fit the bill. Though it uses older conventions to build its plot – aristocrats and poets, the sound of great events beyond the windows that are shaking the world – it has the style that was becoming so popular, and tried to deal with emotions in a way that somehow seemed more personal than would have been the case a generation earlier.
The problem has been that sometimes Giordano struggles to maintain musical concentration, the opera seeming to jump rather too fast without a sustaining theme that carries you through. He is saved, however, by his last act, in which Chénier the poet at least seems truly poetic and carries off (or at least we hope he does) as nicely turned an aria as a tenor can come across. His subsequent duet with Maddalena, the Countess’s daughter who has decided to die with him, is a worthy climax. So it is an opera that does not fade; it blooms. This is what distinguishes it from Fedora, the only other of Giordano’s operas still well-known, which acts as a reasonable vehicle for a decent tenor but is somehow an opera without guts.
Chénier certainly has guts. Though audiences have often found the first act a slightly patchy affair musically, Chénier himself is a compelling hero. We’re all familiar with this kind of story – we all learned very young that it was the best of times, it was the worst of times…– and it is a natural tale for the opera stage, with love cutting through the divisions of class and social station and violence hovering all around. And of course, it ends with a heroic death under the guillotine blade. There’s a rumbustious drive in the story from Chénier’s first arrival at the Countess’s soiree as the celebrated poet (with an electric effect and irreversible consequences that are as inevitable as those that follow the appearance of Eugene Onegin at the Larin residence in another of Holland Park’s operas this season, which will be in repertory with it towards the end of the season).
Throughout the opera – in the revelation of the anonymous letter writer, the declaration of love, the trial and death sentence – the events outside, as the Reign of Terror exerts its grip, are an insistent pulse. As Holland Park audiences have discovered in recent years, the energy of the operas from this part of the Italian repertoire is formidable. No longueurs; no mucking around. The theatre, of course, is perfect for the style. They were meant to be played for lively audiences, spilling across the floor in some small-town theatre, who might join in a well-known chorus or chuck a vegetable at a tenor who cracked on a high note. They were supposed to deal with emotions that the audience recognised in themselves : even if the setting was remote, and the events historical, they’d be people who seemed real. Whether in the lesser-known pieces that became very popular in the last decade of the century and then faded away, or in Puccini’s Paris, Rome or Japan (or even the wild west in Fanciulla) which are still with us the characters were meant to speak from the heart. That was the conceit of the style, that it allowed directness.
The result was therefore often an almost naive construction. In Chénier, for example, the scene is set for an exploration of the feelings that might boil up between the servants in the countess’s home and her aristocratic friends with the arrival of the dashing poet an unexpected and unpredictable catalyst. Yet the story remains one-dimensional. Think of the subtleties Beaumarchais gave da Ponte and Mozart for their Figaro in his play, and how deep the layers become as the 24 hours of festivities, tricks and deceits unfold. Such operas as Andrea Chénier exist on a humbler plane. Yet if there is little genius, there is plenty of theatrical flair.
One of the joys of Holland Park is its atmosphere of real theatre – the sense that anything might happen, even a storm. You can easily imagine this year’s Macbeth, like 2003’s Lucia di Lammermoor, fitting naturally into its craggy space, and perhaps one of the reasons that the string of verismo operas in recent years has been such a success is that there is something in the setting here that seems right for this kind of opera, the story without frills. They have an immediate appeal, especially when adorned by some of the numbers which Giordano wrote for Chénier himself. With John Hudson, such a star at English National Opera for so long, audiences can expect a production that will feel like a show, not a meditation on life.
That’s the point. Andrea Chénier was spotted by the publisher Sonzongo as the kind of opera with which he could put one over on his rival Ricordi and when it was first seen at La Scala in 1896 it was duly a hit. It zipped round Europe in the next decade, arriving in Manchester in 1903 and in London two years later. In New York, it has been an especially popular piece and many of the great tenors have kept it in their repertoire as a sure standby. It was a special favourite of Gigli’s.
They enjoyed it, of course, because it gave them the chance of a grand flourish in the last act, under the shadow of the guillotine, and there was a certain crudity built into the style. One of the critics who admired Giordano said of his (little-seen) opera Mala Vita, dealing with street life in Naples that “in its merciless truthfulness to life it is both gripping and revolting at the same time, like most of these realistic pieces.”
The German romantics were the real bridge to the twentieth century, but there was something in verismo that also led forwards – away from the distant and remote world of kings and emperors, strange potentates and their exotic retinues, to the world around, which turned out to be just as suitable a subject for serious opera. Puccini was the composer who was able to touch the form with some magic dust and become a natural composer for a twentieth century audience that would come to understand how a story might be told on celluloid, at great speed with scene changes so fast that you hardly noticed them. A series of images of the characters could be placed on top of one another in minutes, so that a composite picture sprang out, with many dimensions. In music, Puccini understood that skill. Lesser characters like Giordano lacked the capacity for that brilliant alchemy, but they nonetheless pushed opera forward : these were enormously popular pieces, for the good reason that they were touching and full-blooded and they gave you what you had come for, a good night in the theatre.
They may have been overtaken by the work of giants like Puccini, but they still have their place. Sitting alongside Madama Butterfly, written a few years later, and contrasting with Bellini’s bel canto La Sonnambula, Chénier will stand out as an example of what opera can do very well. First of all it tells a good story, of love and heroism and betrayal. Then it manages to produce some highlights which do impart heroism to the central characters – they grow with the music. And it manages to effect a kind of concentration that makes good drama. No longueurs, no pointlessness – and who better to set those parameters than Verdi himself, who soared above most of the verismo composers who came into vogue at the very end of his life, but who understood precisely how opera on the stage has to work through its ruthless exploitation of the moment. A heartbreak, a deceit, a tragic understanding of betrayal or loss – they are the points of the compass for the composer who must turn a complicated emotional pattern into the linear story which has to move across the stage and carry the audience with it. Keep it moving, keep fingertip control of the pace and time the climaxes. These are the secrets of operatic writing, even if you have taken “realism” to a new level like a Janacek or you are concerned above all with an intellectual argument like Strauss. And in pieces like Chénier, that essence is there.
At the end of a century in which Italian audiences had luxuriated in the brilliance of Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi himself they were ready for rather different kinds of heroes. They were just as majestic in their way, and certainly as much the mesmerising focus of attention as their predecessors were in the grand opera of earlier days. But they seemed to have a different kind of encounter with their audiences, something more direct and gritty than had once been the fashion. And in Andrea Chénier you can see how it was that by seeming to provide something new, to open up a new vista, these operas were, for a time, the talk of the town.