Andrea Chénier, Umberto Giordano’s greatest opera, is like Puccini on steroids 

Heads Will Roll

Heads Will Roll

Playing second fiddle to Giacomo Puccini can't be all bad, given that the composer of La Bohème is in the pantheon of opera greats. Umberto Giordano (1867-1948) may languish in the master's shadow, historically speaking, but he nevertheless created one major work worthy of inclusion in the serious repertoire — Andrea Chénier. Nashville gets its first-ever exposure to Giordano's masterwork this week when Nashville Opera opens its 2010-2011 season.

One of 12 operas by Giordano, Andrea Chénier premiered in 1896, the same year as La Bohème, and was a much bigger hit at the time, according to Nashville Opera artistic director John Hoomes. "This is his Citizen Kane," Hoomes says, "the one piece that survived. This piece is sometimes referred to as 'Puccini on steroids.' In fact, it may have influenced Act 2 of [Puccini's] Tosca, which debuted four years later."

Giordano is considered a verismo composer, as opposed to his senior Puccini, whose compositions are more Romantic in nature. Giordano's grittiness serves him well in this story of the French Revolution, with all its social upheaval and personal misfortune. The Italian libretto is by Luigi Illica.

"The piece moves fast," Hoomes says. "It feels very cinematic, much more so than Puccini's opera. It doesn't feel like a traditional opera of its period — it's more ahead of its time. You might think of it as an MTV Generation opera, with quicker cutting."

Besides collaborating with the noted designer Kris Stone on the production's innovative original sets — expect aristocratic gentility first, switching to the tougher side of Paris and then the guillotine — Hoomes has assembled a circus-full of performers. The total cast numbers about 70 — including a chorus of 38, almost 20 supernumeraries, and also a charming ensemble of 8- to 11-year-old girls from The Dancer's School of Murfreesboro, who practically steal the show in Act 1 in their turn as young peasants.

Giordano's segmented, narrative-driven musical style is very dynamic, and hence vocally very difficult. "Introspective arias are rarer," explains Hoomes. "Here, the music does more to move the plot along. It's a different way to think musically. I think it's more advanced harmonically than Bohème. It's more complex, as if influenced by Wagner."

Hoomes' cast is nothing short of fantastic, with big-voiced tenor Roy Cornelius Smith making his Nashville Opera debut in the role of the titular rabble-rousing poet. Stirring soprano Lori Phillips, who has wowed Nashville audiences in the past in Turandot — and made her Metropolitan Opera debut this past spring — is the tragic love interest, Maddalena di Coigny. In slightly lesser roles, but no less potent vocally, are baritone Eric Dubin and mezzo-soprano Dawn Pierce. Other principals are baritone Luis Ledesma, tenor Jeffrey Halili, bass Matthew Treviño, and Belmont University faculty member and mezzo-soprano Jennifer Coleman. The Nashville Symphony accompanies with Jerome Shannon conducting, and Amy Tate Williams leads the chorus.

"This is a great piece, rarely done outside of the major opera companies," Hoomes says. "It's important to let our audiences see what else is out there apart from the conventional repertoire."



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