The Telegraph, 26 November 2010
Michael White
Ciléa: Adriana Lecouvreur, Royal Opera House, 25 November 2010
Fury in the Covent Garden stalls as Angela Gheorghiu cancels. Again.
It’s not uncommon these days for an opera audience (even an English opera audience) to show displeasure at the end of a performance. But to boo before it even starts is rare. And I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed anything at Covent Garden quite like the collective scorn that greeted a hapless official last night when she came in front of the curtain to say that Angela Gheorghiu had cancelled. At the last minute.

By all accounts Ms Gheorghiu was mortified by her indisposition, full of regret, obeying doctor’s orders etc etc… and the audience didn’t believe a word of it. They jeered, they booed, they hissed: in my part of the stalls it felt as though a riot was fermenting – an abrasive session in the House of Commons at the very least. And the reason, of course, is that the capricious Gheorghiu has done this once too often.

Maybe she was genuinely ill. But the fact remains that she’s turned last-minute cancellation into an art-form, and last night was a peculiarly unfortunate example of it.

The piece was Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur: an opera that for all its busy, fussy plot and opportunities for sumptuous décor, is really an excuse for a star soprano to sing two big arias and a star tenor to be her foil. Lose your soprano and you’re spiked – unless you find yourself in the fairytale situation of having an unknown stand-in who assaults you with unexpected virtuosity and becomes an overnight hit. But this, sadly, wasn’t the case.

The stand-in here was the experienced but low-profile Spanish soprano Angeles Blancas Gulin who had been scheduled to sing two of the later performances in the run, so she knew what to do. But going on in these circumstances clearly unsettled her (and the poor woman must have been truly unsettled as she waited for curtain-up and heard all those jeers in the auditorium). The voice was serviceable but unlovely, insecure, and raw when opened out. And her two big numbers – one of them uncomfortably close to the start when she was at her most anxious – passed without applause.

That left a clear field, though, for tenor Jonas Kaufmann to claim the show, which he did convincingly. As tenors go, it’s a dark (and of course Germanic) voice for Italian repertory that never quite opens out as far you’d like. But goodness knows, he delivers in every other way, with strength, security, intelligence, and lady-killing presence. And with Olga Borodina (es war wie vorgesehen Michaela Schuster), the seconda donna, filling what was otherwise a void of female interest, there was in fact enough fine singing here to go home happy.

It was just a shame that those of us who get so few chances to see this opera (it hasn’t surfaced at Covent Garden since 1906) didn’t see it as planned. A grief and greasepaint drama of backstage intrigue in an 18th century French theatre, Adriana is a pot-boiler but loveable; and David McVicar’s staging of it is conventionally effective, playing every scene as a theatrical indulgence. Charles Edwards’ handsome set design works perfect theatre magic. And Mark Elder conducts with unforced elegance. All it needed was La Gheorghiu. And I wonder where she was?

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