A few weeks after that memorable Peter Grimes from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Sydney and Melbourne audiences were treated to another concert version of an opera, this time a very different and much less cerebral work: Umberto Giordano’s sole enduring success, Andrea Chénier (if we discount the tilting Fedora, occasionally mounted for a famous soprano à la Callas or Freni).
Giordano’s four-act opera – long eclipsed by its exact contemporary, La bohème (1896) – is not without detractors. Andrew Porter, ever a potent sceptic, was one of them: ‘Formally, harmonically, emotionally, and in its political thinking, the work is all over the place – a sprawl of the ingredients that four years later Puccini tied into Tosca.’
There’s no point denying that Chénier contains some commonplace melodies or that the plot is patchy. Certain passages (it is set before and after the French Revolution) are over the top. But each of the three principals has some ringing music, and even the smaller roles are fully characterised. Opera companies go on programming Chénier because of its lush settings and its ‘storehouse of purple patches’, to quote William Mann. Writing in the indispensable Opera on Record 3 (Hutchinson, 1984), Mann went on: ‘The longueurs are, as the Irishman said, pretty short; there’s always a succulent passage waiting round the corner.’