Though Umberto Giordano's work has often been overshadowed by that of his rather more famous contemporary Giacomo Puccini, Giordano's Andrea Chenier offers the ideal site for one to engage in a critical examination of nineteenth century opera and the various thematic and stylistic strains popularized at the time, as well as the complications which arise from modern interpretation and performance. In particular, examining the critical history of verismo alongside the historical context of Andrea Chenier serves to demonstrate how fully a modern performance of the opera seemingly subsumes and dissolves any revolutionary character that might have been present in the original text by reproducing the story of doomed love during the French Revolution in a gaudy, ahistorical performance.
Before conducting an analysis of a modern performance of Andrea Chenier, there are a few key topics one must investigate further in order to place the subsequent analysis in its proper context. Firstly, as a means of historicizing this investigation, one may note that Andrea Chenier was first performed in 1896 and was one of Giordano's earliest works, even as he was one of the "youngest composers of the generation dominated by Giacomo Puccini in Italian opera" (Holland, 2010, p. 173). One must necessarily mention Puccini here not because of any inherent connection between the two (other than their contemporary nature), but due to the fact that Puccini's shadow looms so large over nineteenth and early-twentieth century opera that critics seemingly feel obligated to mention him at every turn, no matter how tenuous the connection. Thus, this study will continue this tradition if only to point out its unproductive nature, because there is ultimately little to be gained from statements like "if Giordano were Puccini, with Puccini's power of writing terse, vivid, trenchant musical prose, and his still more valuable power of writing impassioned and not too subtle musical poetry, there might have been a different tale to tell" (Gilman, 1915, p. 443). Gilman's criticism (if it can even be called that) represents the most egregious example of this tendency to examine all nineteenth and twentieth century opera, or at least Italian opera, by explicitly and exclusively comparing it Puccini, but it is worth pointing out if only as a means of exercising this specter of sycophantic adulation from what should otherwise be a critically reasoned analysis.
Thus, Andrea Chenier debuted in 1896, was likely compared to Puccini's work by those without anything more productive to say, and more interestingly, represented something of a high-water mark for the verismo movement in Italian opera. Andrea Chenier is almost exclusively referred to as an example of verismo opera, but "verismo, a term originally applied to nineteenth-century art and literature of various degrees of realism, has been the subject of controversy when applied to opera," due to the fact that "while literary scholarship has come to measure verismo against the narrowly defined models provided by the theories, novels, and short stories of Luigi Capuana and Giovanni Verga," in the case of opera "these same theories" have simply been transferred onto "the dramatic genre of the libretto, or else operatic scholarship "has constructed concepts of questionable historical foundation" in place of these preexisting literary theories (Giger, 2007, p. 271). In either case the utility of verismo as a descriptive and analytic term is reduced, because in order for it to be deployed effectively, one must understand the historical and ideological background of the term.
Verismo may generally be interpreted as a kind of realism, but to simply equate it with realism largely misses the point, because the verismo movement began and was oriented towards an explicit rejection of and "reaction to the idealism and conventionality of earlier artworks," and in particular "Romantic Italian opera, with its conventional forms of both libretto and music" (Giger, 2007, p. 271). In literary theory, the accepted parameters of verismo which developed over the course of the late nineteenth and early-twentieth century emphasized "the regional character and inherent pessimism of the stories; the blind passion of the protagonists; a quasi-scientific and detached approach to describing both the social, cultural, and political climate in which the characters function and their psychological thought processes; and the importance of a language appropriate to the social and geographical situation of the characters" (Giger, 2007, p. 272). In some ways verismo may be seen as an Italian counterpart to Charles Dickens' interest in the way in which social and cultural standards serve to corrupt or otherwise destroy the individual, although "it is important to keep in mind that a focus on the weak is not equivalent to a focus on the lowest social classes," and indeed, in Andrea Chenier the lower classes, as represented by Gerard, are not generally any better than the aristocracy (Giger, 2007, p. 273).
The particular areas of emphasis mentioned above, and in particular the "meticulous observation of culture, politics, and language; logical development of the story toward a tragic ending; and impersonality," were not actually considered constituent parts of verismo art at the time of term's creation, and instead represent a definition subsequently formulated by critics over the intervening years (Giger, 2007, p. 278). This is not to say that many of these features are not present in verismo works, because, for example, one could easily identify these traits in Andrea Chenier, but rather that this focus on the particular "checklist" of necessary elements risks reducing verismo to the very thing it was reacting against.
Verismo was not a movement focused necessarily on "low" characters and themes or a dispassionate, "scientific" conception of society, but instead was oriented "against idealism, classicism, and - most importantly for our purposes - conventional content, form, and language" (Giger, 2007, p. 283). Thus, the thematic or stylistic consistencies which arose from verismo works (and which were subsequently seized upon by critics in order to produce a simple, comfortable definition of the term) can in many ways be seen as mere afterthoughts, or at least representing nothing more than the fact that enough people all rebelling from the same thing will therefore produce roughly similar acts of rebellion. This fact is crucial to recognize because it serves to explain not only the apparent motivation behind Andrea Chenier, but also the conflict which arises due the fact that a rebellious artistic movement was almost paradoxically encoded in something as traditional as opera, "inscrib[ing] the difficulty of a tradition-bound, "irrational," art form entering a self-consciously objective aesthetic order" (Schwartz, 2008, p. 231).
Furthermore, appreciating how much verismo as a concept depends on what previous aesthetics is it oriented against leads one to a crucial question which must be answered in any analysis of a modern production of Andrea Chenier; can this opera, having been so fully integrated into a stable of popular productions, actually cease to be verismo, as its performance is no longer oriented against an earlier movement but is rather contextualized within the larger corpus of "verismo" art by a modern audience? Put another way, has criticism, inaccurate use of the term "verismo," and popular reception rendered inert any of Andrea Chenier's rebellious or revolutionary movements?
While Andrea Chenier undoubtedly represents "a nostalgia for revolutionary heroism," this nostalgia does not come in the form one might expect (Schwartz, 2008, p. 738). Chenier's revolutionary inclinations serve to highlight a dichotomy seemingly missed by the violent vanguards of the French Revolution, because in much the same way that verismo opera sought to reject traditional notions of the ideal in favor of a more accurate representation of human experience, so too does Chenier reject the use of violence and brutality in the service of political aims, instead opting to use his artistic ability in the service of the powerless. If one regards the history of human experience as a continual opposition between the powerless and the powerful, with the powerful deploying coercive violence in order to remain so, then the revolutionary movement must always be towards equality and the rejection of violence in favor of intellectual or artistic power. If one considers Andrea Chenier to be a verismo text, interested in rejecting earlier artistic standards and aesthetics, then one may view its nostalgia for revolutionary heroism not as a nostalgia for the violent revolution which characterized much of the French experience, but rather the kind of artistic and intellectual revolution made possible when, in 1791, the revolutionary government "abolished the traditional legal associations between particular opera houses and particular operatic genres; composers and librettists were now free to combine the effects of the opera series and the boulevard theaters in a single work" (Meyer, 2002, p. 481). This strain of revolutionary thought celebrated by Andrea Chenier rejects the constraints of generic or stylistic convention, ultimately providing the critic with a means by which to judge any performance of Andrea Chenier on its own terms.
Thus, when conducting an analysis of a particular performance, which in this case will be a September, 2011, production put on by the Grand Theatre de Geneve and starring Zoran Todorovich in the…