Guilty Pleasures at the Opera

On Sunday, February 26, at 2 P.M. our Sunday Opera Matinee resumes after the conclusion of our Rock Marathon that achieved fundraising wonders for WTJU. We will be presenting Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chenier (1896), a perennial audience favorite.

Chenier is one of those operas that is beloved of audiences but deprecated by critics. Giordano (1867-1948) was possessed of limited compositional skills. But he knew a good story when he encountered one in the life of the Parisian poet and patriot André Chenier, who was a victim of the French Revolution. The background for the libretto by Luigi Illica could hardly be more compelling, and it lent itself to the operatic style known as verismo. In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries composers such as Ponchielli, Mascagni, Puccini, and Giordano set their tales of dramatic, often violent confrontation in the gritty conflicts of ordinary people taken from daily life.

The vocal score features great moments for the three principal characters, the tenor Chenier, the soprano Maddalena, and the baritone Gérard. Un di all’azzuro spazio, La mamma morta, and Nemico della Patria are well known to all opera lovers. The rousing finale when Chenier and Maddalena go off to face the guillotine together, if sung by the right heroic voices, is guaranteed to bring any audience cheering to its feet as the final curtain falls.

Chenier is an irresistible role for tenors with big, Italianate voices. The role has been sung by the greats: Caruso, Tamagno, Pertile, Martinelli, Lauri-Volpi, Corelli, Tucker, del Monaco, Domingo, and Pavarotti, to name just a few. When paired with del Monaco, a young Renata Tebaldi was unforgettable as Maddalena.

Although somewhat out of fashion today (we hardly have the voices to do the principal roles justice), Chenier is among those operas like Faust, Adriana Lecouvreur, and Cavalleria Rusticana that will remain in the repertoire so long as opera audiences love great singing and a heavy dose of melodrama.

Tune in this Sunday. It may not be Mozart, but you will hear some great singing.

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