Opera Britannia, 22 November 2010
Antony Lias
Ciléa: Adriana Lecouvreur, Royal Opera House, 18 November 2010
Adriana Lecouvreur: The Royal Opera, 18th November 2010
I have been reliably informed that much of the printed and online media alike have been gushing in their praise for The Royal Opera’s staging of Cilea’s most celebrated opera, Adriana Lecouvreur. I however, must offer a dissenting opinion, as the promise of this “stellar” cast on paper, was not matched by the performances given. None of the principals were ideally suited to this repertory, offering muted, even frigid performances, where passion and excitement was missing not in the dramaturgy, but in the voice, which in my opinion is a far more serious failing. You need Olivero and Corelli-like excitement when singing this vulgar (nothing wrong with vulgarity when it’s performed well) music. Instead of white heat being generated, it felt more like somebody emptying a bucket of tepid water over my head. It needed less prissiness and more guts – a couple of provincial bawlers from Italy could have taught our star leads a thing or two about how to sing verismo.

Peculiarly, it is often said that Adriana is a gift of a role for a soprano in her declining years, due principally to its comfortable and unchallenging tessitura. Angela Gheorghiu, like Caballé before her, had chosen to essay the role whilst still very much in control of her powers – a sensible choice under the circumstances. It does however, call for the sort of deranged over the top performance which was second nature to the likes Tebaldi, but patently missing in a soprano like Gheorghiu. You need grandezza and a voice to thrill, sadly our Romanian diva doesn’t really possess either virtue in sufficient abundance.

I have always had a troublesome “relationship” with Gheorghiu, even though the basic timbre and quality of the voice is one which I find to be beautiful and suffused with a touch of morbidezza. She is not always given her dues by the opera cognoscenti, whose fickle adoration swings away with fervent intensity the moment a pretty face with no technique steps on to the stage, and yet she is undoubtedly one of the leading light-lyric sopranos of her generation. I use the term “light-lyric” with purpose, as her vocal size dictates that she is no Tosca and seemingly no Adriana, despite what she, her agent or the opera house thinks. She is also, I have come to recognise, no great shakes at acting. We tend to always see a one size fits all approach, so that whatever you come to see her in, you do not see Tosca, you do not see Adriana, you instead just see Angela. This for me is the least problematic aspect of her assumption of Cilea’s heroine; far more troubling is to hear the role being sung with a voice that is about 50% too small. An esteemed colleague of mine, in fact a veteran who may well have seen Angelica Pandolfini create the role in 1902, posited the idea that Renee Fleming would offer a marked improvement in a potential revival - should she be cast (apparently she has form at the Met). The glamour would undoubtedly be there, as it is with Gheorghiu, but I suspect her vocal heft is pretty much identical to the Romanian diva’s, which would therefore produce the same general feeling of dissatisfaction.

Gheorghiu’s gift on a plate entrance aria (also the most famous number in the entire piece), “Io son l’umile ancella”, should have been pretty much plain sailing for her, as it was, the top was a tad thin, the middle intermittently unsteady and the chest register poorly integrated. This pretty much summed up most of her singing during Acts I and II, but a marked improvement was clear in Acts III and IV, with Gheorghiu putting her foot down on the pedal and delivering a vocally steadier and somewhat more voluminous performance (consistently good legato throughout). Even at full throttle, there’s not a lot of sound available to this soprano, but it was nonetheless appreciated that she pushed herself. “Poveri fiori”, the precursor to the daft death-by-violets scene, lacked intensity and her reading of the scene from Racine’s Phedre was pure soap opera, rather than opera proper. The whole scene went for nothing, whereas in the hands (and throat) of a genuinely charismatic actress, like Nelly Miricioiu, the results can be coruscating and powerful.

The Princess of Bouillon, needs a demented mezzo capable of raising the stakes in the all important cat fights with Adriana. Think Cossotto and not Michaela Schuster, whose vocally perilous performance, proved to be most unsatisfactory on my unfortunate ears. Loud she may be (one box ticked at least), but there was precious else to redeem her assumption. Poor legato, a fuzzy upper register and borderline intonation issues, conspired to constantly put my teeth on edge, leaving me wishing that Borodina would depart the second cast and come to our rescue. Schuster had plenty of temperament, just not quality. In truth she is yet another example of the ever more bizarre casting choices made by Covent Garden, one to line up alongside Angela Marambio and Micaela Carosi. We shall however, be seeing her again as Venus in Tannhauser, one hopes that Wagner will be more congenial for her than Cilea.

Which brings us on nicely to the evening’s true vocal honours, Jonas Kaufmann, albeit in my opinion, it was more of a qualified success than anything else. His voice, despite its ringing qualities, is rather cold in timbre. It is seemingly quite large, but it is not a heavyweight – well not yet at least. The diminuendo he performed near the end of the performance was proof enough of his tremendous vocal skill, but there is one fault in his voice, which to my ears, blights his performance, and it is one which is steadily getting worse. I am of course speaking of his tendency to cover and bottle up anything remotely approaching piano. The result is an unattractive sound akin to someone taking an extremely long yawn. It detracts enormously from what is often truly exceptional singing, which makes one wish he would learn to sing quietly, without ending up sounding like a frustrated cow!

As an actor, his passionate exchanges with Gheorghiu were extremely convincing, but this jarred a little with his precise and careful voice – he needs to learn to let go, especially in this repertoire. In “Il russo Mencikoff” he was wonderfully exact, but he seemed to be just that little bit too cautious. The same couldn’t really be said of his rendition of “La dolcissima effigie”, which was ardent and passionate, but even that seemed painted on and unrealistic. The question which needs to be asked, is whether he is singing Cilea or Schubert? As it’s the former, he needs to embrace vulgarity and be done with it. All of this might be a tad nit-picky, but he really has the potential to be truly exceptional, a great artist in the royal line of Vickers and Corelli.

Alessandro Corbelli as the stage manager Michonnet, was a mixed blessing. He was never less than delightful and charming to watch, wry and funny throughout, but the voice is sounding a little raddled now with a hint of a precarious wobble very evident. The rest of the cast had their faults and their virtues, with Bonaventura Bottone’s Abbé standing out with his comic and pert performance . It’s a shame however, that his voice sounded dry and a little unsteady.

Mark Elder’s conducting was found wanting for true empathy with this style of music. Much of it was very clean and well produced, but my how dreary they made much of it sound! It was very English, very clipped and lacking in any sweeping grandeur. As to why Antonio Pappano was not conducting this opera, I am absolutely clueless, but one suspects he would have gotten to the melodramatic heart of the score in a way which eluded Elder. There was also one obvious clanger with the brass section during Act II, which one hopes will not present itself again.

David McVicar’s production was as expected - lots of stage paraphernalia (aka clutter), swarms of supernumeraries and plenty of knowing tongue-in-cheek. It’s all very handsome and no doubt very expensive, with its central stage within a stage proving to be the primary focal point from which to build the performance. It did however, fail to serve sufficient purpose in Act IV, which is meant to be set in Adriana’s apartment, as the stark contrast between the stage dominating mini-theatre and Adriana’s modest and sparse apartment, gave the visual impression of being cramped and compromised in effect. The whole production did have an air of faded luxury (especially the costumes), which matched well both the score and the potty plotline. The ballet scene however, was riotously funny, the campest interpretation of the Judgment of Paris hitherto not choreographed by Hinge and Brackett.

I had hoped for a staging which helped to illuminate some of the more barmy aspects of the story, such as why the Princess is unable to discern the way out of her own villa in Act II, but this rarely materialised. As it is, I suspect that McVicar’s production will be largely well received when it travels to Vienna, Paris, Barcelona and San Francisco.

My overall feeling is that the faults of this performance were largely musical, rather than theatrical. A new cast could well be all that it needs to elevate the performance. One hopes than Angeles Blancas Gulin has inherited some of her mother’s temperament, and will turn up the heat in her confrontations with the experienced Princess of Olga Borodina. That would be a start at least. It has been over a hundred years since Covent Garden last performed Adriana Lecouvreur, and frankly I could have waited a little longer if it meant getting it right.

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