Express, 22 November 2010
By William Hartston
Ciléa: Adriana Lecouvreur, Royal Opera House, 18 November 2010

ALL opera with a ridiculously convoluted plot, that has not been performed at Covent Garden since 1906, written by a composer you have probably never heard of, may not sound very appealing, but the Royal Opera has pulled out all the stops for this production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur and the result is nothing short of sensational.

First there is the cast. Having Angela Gheorghiu in the title role should be enough reason for anyone to want to see this production. She not only has the most beautiful and passionate soprano voice on Earth, but is also a consummate actress. With total control, she can belt out angry arias, exude passion in romantic duets, go mad or die in a whisper that fills the huge hall – all of which are called for in the role of Adriana. Yet to judge from the ecstatic applause at the end of the first night, the audience vote went not to Gheorghiu but to the German tenor Jonas Kaufmann who took the role of Maurizio, Count of Saxony and sang it absolutely beautifully.

Kaufmann is, in the opinion of many, the world's greatest currently performing tenor and on the basis of this performance, it is difficult to disagree. The clarity and power of his voice are awe-inspiring, and the quality of his singing seemed to get better and better as he increased the volume. His is a truly stunning voice. Gheorghiu and Kaufmann together, as a pair of lovers, looked the part and sounded divine. When the opera ended with his heart-rending aria as she died in his arms, the whole audience must have felt mesmerised and emotionally drained.

With such superb singers in the leading roles, it must have been easier than usual to recruit a good supporting cast, but the Royal Opera have again outdone themselves. Michaela Schuster was outstanding as the Princess de Bouillon, who is Adriana's rival for Maurizio's love. Looking every inch the wicked and powerful princess, she exudes hostility and venom, particularly when trading insults with her rival. Alessandro Corbelli was also excellent as Michonnet, stage manage of the theatre where Adriana performs, besotted with the girl, but unable to express his love.

Not only was there not a single weak link in the cast, but David McVicar's production, aided by sumptuous sets  designed by Charles Edwards, also brought out the splendour of 18th century Paris in which the story is set, and helped tell the story as the action switched between theatre, backstage and Palace.

Finally, there was the Covent Garden orchestra, conducted by Mark Elder who are never less than excellent, but on this occasion were better than I have ever heard them. Particularly in the prelude to the final act, where the strings and wind sections are engaged in a beguiling conversation, their variations in dynamics brought out the depths of the composer's Puccini-like music and revealed its high quality.

So why, you may wonder, have we not seen this opera for a century? The answer lies in a combination of the composer's unjust obscurity (caused mainly by his being overshadowed by Puccini himself), and the silliness of the plot.

Like many operas, it comes down to tenor meets soprano, they fall in love, problems arise, and they reconcile just before the soprano dies, but despite the fact that it's based on a true story, the convolutions in  Adriana Lecouvreur make it hard to follow. Quite apart from the main love triangle, there are other infidelities and rivalries going on, all compounded by mistaken identities, disguises and a totally unbelievable poisoning plot (inhaled from a casket of violets) to dispose of Adriana at the end.

But with singing like this, who needs a plot? The Royal Opera House are to be congratulated on digging this opera out of obscurity and sparing no effort to provide the treatment it deserves. They have given us many treats this year, delightfully mixing old favourites with new productions and rediscoveries of forgotten works, but this production of Adriana Lecouvreur is as perfect as anything they have done. An utterly memorable evening. 

Verdict: 5/5

Foto: Catherine Ashmore

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