titanic talents bring star quality to a tale about dangers of fame
It's more than a century since Covent Garden last staged Francesco Cilea's
Adriana Lecouvreur, and the reason they're doing it now – for astronomical
seat prices – is glaringly obvious. This is an opera about celebrity, high
style, romance, jealousy, violence, low intrigue, and the precariousness of
fame – all the things contemporary media are obsessed with. Its central
character was a real historical figure, the charismatic star of the
18th-century Comédie-Française whose tempestuous love-life earned implacable
rivals and a murkily mysterious demise.
According to the production
team, this show has been expressly designed round the personality of Angela
Gheorghiu, its star. Gheorghiu is dream casting for a role which all the
great dramatic sopranos – from Joan Sutherland to Renée Fleming – have
scrambled to make their own. Her co-star Jonas Kaufmann's role of Adriana's
wayward aristocrat-officer lover Maurizio was one which Caruso was the first
among leading tenors to appropriate; one of Maurizio's arias was on Placido
Domingo's debut recording.
And when these singers first meet amid
Charles Edwards's charmingly naturalistic evocation of backstage life at the
Comédie-Française, they do seem made for each other. Every moment in this
beautiful work is dramatic, here fastidiously conducted by Mark Elder, with
peaks of intensity in the set-piece arias. With the first of these – where,
Tosca-like, Adriana proclaims herself a chaste servant of art – Gheorghiu
reminds us what a consummate artist she is, trading on that complicity she
enjoys with her fans. Kaufmann's answering aria finds him muting his
characteristically burnished tone with a lovely tenderness.
superlative Alessandro Corbelli as Adriana's hopelessly enamoured
stage-manager, and mezzo Michaela Schuster making a fine foil as her rival –
the aptly-named Princesse de Bouillon – Gheorghiu effortlessly asserts her
dominance musically and dramatically. Delivering a speech from Phèdre as a
coded humiliation of the princess, she evinces a sulphurous fury. Kaufmann's
sound, meanwhile, though not quite that of a young Domingo, becomes more
ringingly heroic as the evening goes on.
David McVicar's production
is full of clever touches and includes an absolutely exquisite little
entr'acte ballet. Its sure arc progresses inexorably from humdrum public
reality to a private and tragic apotheosis.
This opera being a
lightly fictionalised version of an improbably dramatic life, the dénouement
comes when, having sniffed a bunch of poisoned violets sent by her jealous
rival, the heroine becomes delirious and starts to relive her greatest stage
moments. Gheorghiu's handling of this scene is flawless, her voice soaring
and falling back in despair like a wounded bird.
The last thing we
hear is Maurizio's grief-stricken cry which – as Kaufmann delivers it, over
the sound of a consoling harp – wrings the hearts of all who have stayed the
emotional course with this sorely underrated drama. In the pre-cinema Italy
of Cilea's day, operas like this would be the regular Saturday night
entertainment for rich and poor alike. As the ovation confirmed, it still
makes a splendid one today.