Andrea Chenier, perhaps Giordano's most widely performed opera, was completed in November 1895. Illica's libretto, originally intended for the composer Alberto Franchetti, relates a fictionalised account of events surrounding a French poet, Andrea Chenier, before, during and after the French Revolution (Chenier was executed in 1794 at the height of the Terror).
Despite its historical subject, Andrea Chenier is a verismo opera: duets and solos arise without preparation from the surrounding dialogue lending the opera a naturalised flow; and emphasis is placed on revolutionary passions and violence. The opening pre-revoluationary act, in contrast with the rest of the opera, has a suitably aristocratic air and uses the gavotte dance form to great effect. Also listen out for Giordano's use of La Marseillaise to evoke the spirit of the revolution.
Popular extracts include Chenier's revolutionary aria in Act I, Un di all'azzurro spazio, and Maddalena's sorrowful remembrance of a lost world, La mamma morta.
Andrea Chenier was first performed at La Scala, Milan on 28 March 1896 and was received with consdierable enthusiasm. It elevated Girodano amongst the ranks of Mascagni, Puccini and Leoncavallo, as masters of the young school (nuove giovane).
Umberto Giordano was the son of a pharmacist, and as a boy he had to overcome considerable parental opposition to his taking up a musical career. He began with some preparatory training (in secret at first) under Gaetano Briganti (an inventor of mechanical instruments, including a clock-work string quartet). Later Giordano overcame his father's opposition and took the entrance examination for the Naples Conservatory of San Pietro a Maiella. He failed the exam once, but was admitted in 1880. Unfortunately a family crisis soon forced him to withdraw. He worked for a while without payment as a prop assistant at the Teatro Dauno in Foggia in order to have free access to the theatre. With the support of Paolo Serrao, his professor of composition, he was again permitted to attend classes at the Naples Conservatory, where he remained until 1890. While still a student he submitted a one-act opera, Marina, to the Sonzogno contest of 1889, but was awarded only sixth place.
But Sonzogno realised that the poor libretto was to blame for preventing Giordano from receiving a higher place. So the publisher invited the young composer back to Rome and offered him a salary and a commission to write another opera. The result, Mala Vita (1892) was performed in Rome and was Giordano’s first success. When it was performed in Naples, however, it was not popular. His next opera, Regina Diaz (1894), was even less successful and he lost his job. He was later given another chance, though, and spent several months living in squalid conditions in Milan, writing Andrea Chenier. It was first performed at La Scala on March 28th, 1896, amid fears that it would be very badly received. Against all expectations, it was a great success and was soon taken on an international tour.
Fedora (1898) was almost a disaster, but ended up being successful and was performed all over the world, including Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, and Mainz (in German). In 1900 Gustav Mahler conducted it in Vienna. Five years later it was performed in Paris and in 1906 it arrived almost simultaneously at the Metropolitan Opera House and Covent Garden. Performances of Fedora were given in translations ranging from Croation and Polish to Bulgarian. Giordano’s last completed opera, Il Re, was staged in Milan in 1929. In his later years, he showed an active interest in the development of recording techniques and sensed the importance of the gramophone in the diffusion of good music. He was one of the founders of the Italian State Record Library, the 'Discoteca di Stato' in Rome. Giordano’s style of music bears some resemblance to that of Puccini and Leoncavallo.