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Umberto Giordano: Umberto Giordano (b.Foggia,27 Aug 1867; d. Milan, 12 Nov 1948).
The son of a chemist, Umberto Giordano was intended to take up the same profession, but when he displayed an early talent for music his father generously allowed him to study locally. Thanks to the help of a wealthy neighbour he was sent in 1881 for more advanced studies to the Naples Conservatoire, where at the age of twenty-two he wrote his first opera, Marina, for the competition promoted by the publisher Sonzogno which was won by Mascagni with Cavalleria Rusticana. His meeting with both publisher and fellow-composer played an important part in his later career. Sonzogno commissioned an opera, Mala Vita, which was premiered in Rome in 1892 with considerable success, its blatant verismo qualities pleasing the taste of the day. Umberto Giordano at once abandoned this type of opera dealing with everyday life, however, turning to more romantic subjects for all his later works. He suffered a setback in 1894 when Regina Diaz proved a dismal failure at its first performance in Naples, though it was of some value to him in that its music was a necessary step forward to Andrea Chenier, the most enduring of all his operas, which made his name internationally two years later.
During these two years Umberto Giordano eked out a precarious living in Milan on the small allowance sent to him each month by Sonzogno, who still had faith in him. The composer's own faith in himself was kept alive by his work on the libretto of Andrea Chenier which Luigi Illica had provided. 'This Chenier will change everything for us,' he wrote to his father, 'and then you will bless the sacrifices you have made for me.' The letter was typical of an unusually modest composer who always appreciated the kindness shown to him by his family and friends, and who behaved in turn with unfailing kindness to those less fortunate than himself. Atone point there was a quarrel between composer and librettist, which ended in Umberto Giordano visiting Illica and threatening him with a toy pistol. The terrified Illica promised to do anything Umberto Giordano asked, then as soon as the latter confessed the weapon was only a toy both men burst out laughing and remained good friends ever afterwards. The opera, duly completed on time for the Scala season, was suddenly withdrawn when one of Sonzogno's advisers told him it was no good. Umberto Giordano was then in Florence attending a season of operas by Mascagni, who agreed to meet him to discuss the unexpected action of La Scala. Because of this meeting Mascagni missed the opening ceremony for the city's new transport system, at which the tram he should have been riding in with other distinguished passengers crashed, killing and injuring several people. Believing that Umberto Giordano had saved his life, Mascagni went at once to Milan, where he successfully persuaded the management to change its mind about Andrea Chenier. The opera was the success of the season, and immediately the cheering was over the composer sent a telegram to Mascagni consisting of the one word, 'Prophet!' Andrea Chenier was soon given throughout Italy, reached New York later the same year, and was produced in Moscow the following season. It is interesting that the year 1896 also saw the premiere of Puccini's La Boheme, but whereas Puccini was to go on from strength to strength, Umberto Giordano was to join the band of Italian opera composers remembered in most parts of the world only for one youthful success.
The story of Marie-Andre Chenier, the French poet who became both champion and victim of the French Revolution, was an ideal operatic subject, and by making him fall in love with a member of the aristocracy he so hated in itself the drama was given personal as well as political conflict. Umberto Giordano rose magnificently to the challenge, providing lyrical arias for Chenier the poet balanced by equally rewarding heroic outbursts for Chenier the revolutionary. The music of the opera as a whole is most skilfully paced, gathering momentum and intensity all the way from the opening party scene through the grim trial of Chenier to the terror of the prison scene and the exit to the guillotine. The characters are drawn in bold strokes which are matched by music of expressively virile power, with contrasting tender moments which show that Umberto Giordano was capable of a light touch when necessary. There is an intriguing parallel between Chenier and the vengeful Gerard in this opera and Cavaradossi and Scarpia in Tosca, which was to come four years later and suggest that Puccini had learned something from Andrea Chenier. What Umberto Giordano lacked, and could never learn from Puccini, was poetic delicacy and subtlety of both vocal and instrumental writing.
Umberto Giordano's next success was Fedora, premiered in 1898, a highly romantic story of a Russian Princess in love with a Nihilist which takes the audience on a Cook's tour of Paris, Switzerland and St Petersburg. The tenor role of Loris was created by the young Enrico Caruso, whose reputation it established as one of the world's greatest singers. After Fedora Giordano composed several operas which enjoyed a measure of success at the time, notably the attractively romantic Madame Sans-Gene, premiered at the Metropolitan in New York in 1915 with Geraldine Farrar as the likeable earthy heroine, and the satirical La Cena delle Beffe, brilliantly produced at La Scala, Milan, in 1924 with Toscanini conducting. All failed to keep a place in the repertoire, however, so Umberto Giordano is today remembered in Italy as the composer of Andrea Chenier and Fedora, and in the rest of the world only by the former.
A simple man with a warm sense of humour, Umberto Giordano was content with what he had achieved. Was not Chenier the favourite role of Beniamino Gigli and one which most leading tenors fought for? He knew he was no innovator, that his music lacked profundity, but he could console himself with the thought that he had used his modest talents well. He enjoyed the limelight from time to time, but for the most part he preferred to stay at home, spending several hours each day playing the piano. A popular man throughout his life, he was universally mourned in Italy when he died in 1948. He would have appreciated the last tribute paid to him at the funeral: when the cortege came to La Scala on its way to the cemetery the coffin was placed in the open doorway while the orchestra played 'Amor ti vieta', the celebrated tenor aria from Fedora. Few composers have left the world to such a fitting gesture.
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