Wall Street Journal, 26 November 2010
Paul Levy
Ciléa: Adriana Lecouvreur, Royal Opera House, 18 November 2010
The Royal Opera's 'Adriana Lecouvreur' Is a Bonne Spectacle
'Adriana Lecouvreur' at the Royal Opera House in London is an overwhelming and powerful experience.
Sometimes even the most jaded, blasé critic has to admit that he's had an overwhelming, powerful experience at the opera. The new production of "Adriana Lecouvreur" at the Royal Opera House was one of those occasions for me—as it clearly was for the audience. London opera audiences are usually restrained, but the first-night crowd for David McVicar's version of Francesco Cilea's rare work applauded and bravoed each big number in the first of its four acts.

That in itself is remarkable. But even more notable was that, as the (admittedly, complicated) drama grew more gripping, the same audience refrained from clapping until the end of each of the remaining acts. And at the end, even I violated the tacit code of the critic and shouted my hurrahs along with all those seated around me.

Despite its extraordinarily melodic arias—at least two of which, the soprano's "Io son l'umile ancella" (I am only the handmaid of art) and the tenor's "Il russo Mencikoff," in which he explains a daring military ruse, have become standard recorded operatic lollipops—"Adriana" has not been seen in London for more than a century. It was last performed at the Royal Opera in 1904. From this, you'd be right to conclude that it wasn't highly valued as a work of art. Director David McVicar and the Royal Opera have showed just how wrong this judgment was.

A ghost haunts the score. The phantom of this opera is Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924), who, though a little older, progressed further musically than Cilea (1866-1950). Though Cilea never achieved anything as strikingly modern as Puccini's "Turandot"—despite living long enough to know about John Cage (if he'd wished to)—"Adriana" is still a 20th century piece, in the way of "Tosca" and "Madame Butterfly." And if you listen carefully, you can hear Wagnerian bass instruments and the use of tympani, along with reminiscences of distinctly premodern composers.

There was a historical Adrienne Lecouvreur (1692-1730), the leading actress of the Comédie Française under Louis XV, a friend of Voltaire and the mistress of Maurice de Saxe (1696-1750), the original of the opera's Maurizio, the Count of Saxony who pretends at first to be one of his own army officers. As in the opera, there was an intrigue involving the Prince de Bouillon, an amateur chemist, and his wife was long thought to have killed Adriana by (the actually impossible method of) poisoning a bunch of violets. This gives you some idea why the plot has often been found unsatisfactory.

But Mr. McVicar and his set designer, Charles Edwards, have found the solution. The set is drawn from the ravishing little Margravial Opera House in Bayreuth, and includes the whole of the wood-frame backstage and dressing rooms. Looking almost full-size, the model rotates, so we are sometimes focusing on the backstage and sometimes, as in the full-scale Act III ballet of "The Judgment of Paris," seeing events on the elevated model's stage over the shoulders of the audience on the actual stage.

From almost the beginning of Act I, then, we understand that what we are watching is a theatrical event, a play within an opera. This is brought home by Adriana, the Romanian soprano Angelo Gheorghiu at her diva best, speaking the first lines of the opera from her part in a performance of Racine's "Bajazet," and singing only about her worries as to whether she has learned her lines properly. She acts her little 18th-century silk socks off.

In addition, Michonnet, the stage manager of the Comédie, achieves a sort of Brechtian effect avant la lettre by standing in the wings of the model theater, commenting (in song) on Adriana's supreme performance—while Cilea has cleverly provided only orchestral music for her theatrical performance, and she doesn't sing a note or say a word. The performance Michonnet praises so floridly is completely silent. But we know—and baritone Alessandro Corbelli conveys this to us eloquently and sympathetically—that Michonnet's patient admiration for Adriana is that of a would-be lover, not merely a fatherly employer. This juicy baritone part is one of the several often overlooked merits of this piece.

The opera's première took place in Milan in 1902, with Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) as the tenor lead, Maurizio. No one now living ever heard Caruso in his prime, but I'd be surprised if his rendition of the role was better than Jonas Kaufmann on this opening night. He moves with grace and acts with the winning economy of a fine film actor. This handsome, young (and curiously unshaven) German tenor simply soared. His dynamic control ranged from full-on, open-throated loud to a whispered ppp, which could still be heard over the conductor Sir Mark Elder's superb orchestra. Mr. Kaufmann excels at beginning a phrase in a booming chest voice and finishing on a delicately tender, quiet, floated note in his head voice—his performance was a master-class in portamento.

The casting is luxurious, with singers as well known as Janis Kelly and Bonaventura Bottone playing minor roles. You have to think they might have agreed to do them because of the chance to wear Brigitte Reiffenstuel's majestic period costumes—or to work with the choreographer and movement director, Andrew George, who has made the piece look as though it's as much fun to perform as to watch.

One of the supporting characters requires a name-check, though; Michaela Schuster's malevolent Princesse de Bouillon is so entertainingly spiteful and handsomely sung that it would be churlish to omit her.

A French woman I helped into the elevator before curtain-up graciously wished me "Bonne spectacle!" Her wish came true—and Covent Garden must have known in advance that this was going to be a rare instance of truly grand opera in the 21st century, for they have as co-producers the Liceu, Barcelona; Vienna State; San Francisco; and Paris operas.

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