“Trove Thursday” commemorates Umberto Giordano’s 150th birthday with an unusual performance of his best-known opera Andrea Chenier where an unexpected Canadian star-tenor relishes beheading alongside a far less well-known Italian diva: Jon Vickers and Ilva Ligabue

Born in 1867, Giordano composed Chenier before he was 30 and never had a lasting success to match it except perhaps Fedora which premiered two years later and is done here and there. The operas he wrote in the 20th century are rarely heard although Mirella Freni late in her career took up Madame Sans-Gêne which premiered at the Met in 1915 with Arturo Toscanini conducting Geraldine Farrar and Giovanni Martinelli.

I have to admit that Chenier is probably the best-known opera I’ve never experienced live. The opera usually strikes me a few hit tunes with a lot of not every interesting stuff in between, but obviously that might be a minority opinion as it’s a work that has many advocates. For some reason, it’s always paired in my mind with La Gioconda even though they were written more than 20 years apart, but I have seen the Ponchielli twice and I did do Fedora though.

It’s not that I couldn’t have gone; since I moved to New York the Met has featured Nicola Martinucci, Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, Ben Heppner and Marcelo Alvarez in the showy title role and Roberto Alagna also performed it in a flop of a concert at Avery Fisher Hall.  Jonas Kaufmann is the latest divo to make the opera his own albeit only in Europe. So far he’s done new productions in London and Munich while this season he revives the role in Munich and brings it to Barcelona and Vienna.

When La Scala announced it was opening this season with a new Chenier, I hadn’t yet learned of the birthday anniversary. However, it does seem strange that the “star” of the show is its Maddalena, Anna Netrebko. I’m most curious how the notoriously volatile Milanese public will respond to Yusif Eyvazov’s assumption of its quintessentially Italian tenor role.

I had originally thought that these Dallas performances were a one-off for Vickers, but it turned out that he had done the title role a number of times earlier in his career. In 1961 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago he was paired with the exotically named Syrian soprano Shakeh Vartenissian as Maddalena. That year he also appeared as Chenier in Vienna with the idiomatic cast of Gerda Scheyrer and Eberhard Wächter!

Like his Riccardo in Ballo, it’s not surprising that he didn’t essay the role at the Met. During that time, the house had Franco Corelli, Richard Tucker, Carlo Bergonzi…and Daniele Barioni for Chenier. This Dallas pirate, however, documents his final run of the opera.

I suspect if someone mentions Ligabue most opera-lovers would think of her in connection with just one role: Alice Ford in Falstaff which she recorded complete twice along with an LP of highlights. She never sang at the Met but appeared at least once in New York in a concert performance of Donizetti’s Maria di Rohan which apparently didn’t go over well. She sang in Chicago in Mefistofele and Il Trovatore and at least one other time in Dallas in Otello. It would seem these Maddalenas were her final appearances in the US.

She had a wide-ranging international career that seems to have centered around three composers—Mozart, Verdi and… Cherubini? Unexpected as it may seem there are recordings of Ligabue in the latter’s Ali Baba, L’hôtellerie portugaise, Pimmalione and Lodoïska.

Giordano: Andrea Chenier
Dallas Civic Opera
30 November 1973
in-house recording

Maddalena – Ilva Ligabue
Bersi – Nancy Williams
Madelon – Lili Chookasian
Countess de Coigny – Jan Curtis
Andrea Chenier – Jon Vickers
Carlo Gérard – Silvano Carroli
L’incredibile/Abbé – Piero de Palma
Roucher – Lenus Carlson

Conductor – Nicola Rescigno

This week’s French Revolution potboiler as well as last week’s Rimsky melodrama can each be downloaded by clicking on the icon of a square with an arrow pointing downward on the posting’s audio player and the resulting mp3 file will appear in your download directory.

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