He was born in Foggia in Italy and studied under Paolo Serrao at the Conservatoire of Naples. His first opera Marina, was written for an academic competition, after which came Mala Vita, a gritty verismo opera concerning a labourer who vows to reform a prostitute if he is cured of his tuberculosis. This caused something of a scandal when performed at Rome in 1892. Giordano tried a more romantic approach with his next opera, Regina Diaz (1894), but this was also a failure, taken off the stage after just two performances.
Giordano then moved to Milan, and returned to verismo with his best-known work, Andrea Chenier (1896), based on the life of the French poet, André Chénier. Fedora (1898) was also a success, and is still performed today. His later works are much less well known, but occasionally revived.