Act 1 – In the provinces at the château of the Countess of Coigny, 1789
In the Château de Coigny the ever-growing disparity between the nobility and the Third Estate becomes clear during the preparations for an ostentatious party. The servant Gérard is, in contrast to the decadent exuberence, on the one hand, like his old father who must still work, despite his frailness and weakness, but on the other, clearly convinced that the end of the aristocracy has arrived. The attending guests discuss the impending societal upheavals and are subsequently distracted and amused by a recital of shepherding songs. At the party, the young poet Andrea Chénier refuses to spontaneously read a poem, a move construed as impolite. Egged on by Maddalena, the Countess of Coigny’s daughter, Chénier finally gives a speech disguised as a poem, cynically mocking the love for the aristocracy and criticising the mercilessness of the nobility towards the lower social classes. This, however, is completely ignored by the guests, causing the poet to leave the party. Only two people agree with him: Maddalena, who does not hide her enthusiasm, and Gérard, who has observed everything from the background. He then later bursts into the celebrations, together with beggars and poor people, in order to show the nobles the misery they have caused. Disgusted at the miserable scene, the Countess throws the crowd out of her house and fires Gérard, before continuing the party as if nothing had happened.
Act 2 – A Paris street, 1794
The public surveillance conducted by Robespierre’s spies clearly shows the misery of the French Revolution’s darkest months. Maddalena’s handmaid, the mixed-race Bersi, converses with an incroyable, secretly spying for the state, who recognises her as a confidant of the missing Maddalena and registers her as a suspicious person. Chénier, who is disappointed at the direction the Revolution is taking, is being sought by the police and consequently pressured by his friend Roucher to flee Paris. The poet hesitates, however, while his inner voice says that he could finally experience real love for the first time. An unknown lady has written him a letter and he is determined to meet her. The meeting with the secretive woman exposes her true identity as the help-seeking Maddalena, who describes her precarious situation to Chénier. During the revolution, her whole family was killed and their château burned down. Without possessions and, as aristocracy, still in grave danger, Maddalena turns to the poet for aid. Her defencelessness spurs Chénier to help her unconditionally and ignites the flames of love within him. Suddenly, Gérard, now a confidant of Robespierre, appears having learned of Maddalena’s whereabouts from an incroyable. Ever since his time as a servant at the Château de Coigny, he has been in love with the young lady and deployed spies to find her. Gérard’s attempt to take possession of his earlier mistress is thwarted by Chénier, and a duel ensues between the two men. The wounded Gérard demands that his conqueror, whom he now recognises, flees. Gérard keeps the fact that the fleeing man is the sought-after Chénier secret from the onrushing guards.
Act 3 – In front of the Revolutionary tribunal’s welfare committee, 1794
After Gérard’s appeal to the people to give their sons and remaining possessions to the Revolution in this time of outside threat to the nation, the citizens donate their jewellery, and the old lady Madelon hands over her grandson, the last living child in her family as a soldier to the welfare committee. As a member of the Revolutionary tribunal, Gérard must construct the case against Chénier, arrested on the run, and accuses him of high treason despite being sympathetic to his plight. Maddalena then offers herself in exchange for Chénier’s life, and she is ready to accept his conditions. Moved by her willingness to sacrifice herself, Gérard remorsefully decides to put all his strength into freeing Chénier. In front of the tribunal, however, neither the jury nor the people accept the accuser’s pleas or self-incrimination. Chénier is then sentenced to death with the others.
Act 4 – In St Lazare Prison, 1794
Maddalena and Gérard appear after Chénier reads his final verses to his friend Roucher, an anthem to poetry. They bribe the gaoler Schmidt, so that Maddalena can take the place of a condemned prisoner and see Chénier. In the face of death, Chénier and Maddalena swear their undying love for each other.
Übersetzung: James McCallum