The Winter Garden at the Coigny Château, 1789
The Contessa di Coigny is about to host an elaborate party. One of her footmen, Carlo Gérard, looks forward to the imminent destruction of the aristocracy’s privileged lives. The Contessa enters, as does her daughter Maddalena with her companion Bersi and gives orders to the servants. Gérard, who has been secretly in love with Maddalena since they were children, watches resentfully. The guests include the writer Pietro Fléville, who has brought with him the poet Andrea Chénier and the musician Flando Fiorinelli. The Contessa’s Abbé arrives with the latest news from Paris. The guests are alarmed by his tales of political unrest in the capital. Fléville attempts to distract them; the Contessa asks Chénier to recite a poem but he declines. At Maddalena’s provoking insistence, Chénier improvises some verses, contrasting his patriotic love for France with the idle indifference of the aristocracy. Moved and shamed, Maddalena rushes from the room. The Contessa’s guests are appalled by Chénier’s words, but not Gérard. The angry voices of a mob are suddenly heard outside, approaching the château. Gérard flings open the windows to let the storming peasants in. The Contessa orders the footmen to throw them out. Gérard defies her and leaves with the crowd. The Contessa is shaken but commands that the party continue.
France has been in the throes of Revolution for five years. The King and Queen have been executed and the government, dominated by Robespierre’s Jacobin party, have imposed “The Terror.” Chénier is seated at a table, writing. Mathieu, a sans-culotte, is busily attending to an altar to the Revolutionary martyr Marat. Bersi, now a merveilleuse, is also there, closely observed by the Incredibile, a spy for the radical Jacobins. Confronting him, she declares herself to be a patriotic daughter of the Revolution, but the Incredibile is suspicious of her connection to a mysterious fairhaired woman he is searching for. Chénier’s friend Roucher arrives with a passport he has procured for him. Initially a leading figure of the Revolution, Chénier has become an outspoken critic of the Jacobins. Roucher advises him to leave France as soon as possible. Chénier is reluctant; he is intrigued by a series of letters from a mysterious woman who signs herself as “Hope.” A crowd gathers to see the Representatives of the National Convention process by, led by Robespierre himself. Gérard, having prospered in the Revolution, is now a popular Jacobin. The Incredibile draws him aside; it is Gérard who has set him the task of finding the fair woman he suspects to be associated with Bersi. Bersi tells Chénier that “Hope” will come to meet him that evening. As darkness falls, the mysterious woman appears and Chénier approaches her. It is Maddalena. Hidden for months by Bersi, she has written to Chénier in the desperate hope that he remembers her and will offer her his protection. They realize that they love each other. The couple is suddenly surprised by Gérard and the Incredibile. Roucher drags Maddalena away to safety as Chénier draws his sword and wounds Gérard. Recognizing the poet whose words inspired him five years earlier, Gérard warns Chénier to flee with Maddalena; Chénier’s name is on the list of the Public Prosecutor, Fouquier-Tinville. When the Jacobins arrive, Gérard says he does not know who attacked him.
Chénier and Maddalena have fled Paris and are in hiding. Mathieu attempts to stir up support for the Revolutionary cause; France is in danger, threatened by foreign invasion and internal rebellion. But the crowd is silent. Gérard arrives, recovered from his wounds, and arouses the people with an impassioned plea. He directs the women to offer their sons and jewels to the Revolution. A blind old woman, Madelon, comes forward. She has lost both her son and eldest grandson, and now offers her youngest grandson in their place. The crowd is moved and gives whatever they can before filing out. The Incredibile has not given up his pursuit of Maddalena and he now arrives to tell Gérard that Chénier has been taken. The Incredibile is certain that Maddalena will be forced out of hiding and will try to rescue her lover. Despite himself, Gerard is tasked with framing an indictment against the poet. He reflects bitterly on his hypocrisy in denouncing Chénier. Once the servant of the aristocracy, he has become the slave of his own passions. Maddalena comes to plead for Chénier’s life. Gérard confesses his uncontrollable desire for her. She offers herself in exchange for Chénier’s freedom. She recalls the terrible death of her mother, the Contessa, butchered by a mob before her eyes. She remembers fleeing with Bersi and how Bersi hid her in Paris. Only Chénier’s love has sustained her. Gérard swears to do all he can to save Chénier, as the public now swarms into the hall for the latest show-trial. Three defendants, including a young mother, Idia Legray, are quickly dealt with, but when Fouquier-Tinville reads out the indictment against Chénier, he demands to be heard. Gérard comes forward and repudiates his own accusations. But the mob turns against their erstwhile hero and howls him down. The jury quickly deliberates and returns their verdict: the court condemns Chénier to be guillotined.
Chénier reads his final poem to Roucher, comparing the sunset of his life to the end of a fine spring day. Moved, Roucher embraces his friend and leaves with the verses in his hand. Gérard arrives with Maddalena. They bribe the jailer, Schmidt, into letting her take the place of Idia Legray, condemned to die that morning alongside Chénier. Gérard bids her farewell and leaves to plead once more with Robespierre for the life of Chénier. Alone together, Chénier and Maddalena jubilantly prepare for death. The dawn risesp>