The Sunday Times, 28 November 2010
Hugh Canning
Ciléa: Adriana Lecouvreur, Royal Opera House, 18 November 2010
It’s good to be back
Francesco Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur returns to Covent Garden after a century, offering some timely escapism
More than 100 years have passed since Francesco Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur has stalked the boards of the Royal Opera House. It was premiered at La Scala, Milan, in 1902, with the great Enrico Caruso as the aristocratic lothario Maurizio (the German general known to history as Maurice de Saxe) and Angelica Pandolfini as the titular French tragedienne, star of the Comédie Française during the famously licentious regency of Philippe d’Orléans and the early personal rule of the sensualist Louis XV.

The Royal Opera’s new production is a vehicle for Angela Gheorghiu and (almost) everyone’s favourite tenor, Jonas Kaufmann, as the two-timing Saxon count, whom Adriana thinks is merely one of his officers. He is also the lover of the married Princesse de Bouillon, whose jealousy provokes her to murder her rival with a posy of poisoned violets. Adriana has maintained a place in the modern repertoire by the skin of her teeth — mostly in Italy, the Latin world and America — but her appearances in this country have been fitful.

Between the last Covent Garden performances in 1906 — when Adriana was sung by Caruso’s then mistress, Rina Giachetti — and these performances, Cilea’s opera has been seen twice at Opera Holland Park, and Montserrat Caballé and Nelly Miricioiu have headlined concert performances. Adriana’s most famous interpreter, and Cilea’s favourite, Magda Olivero, appeared in the role at the 1963 Edinburgh Festival (she’s still with us, having celebrated her 100th birthday in March).

Hair-shirts may sniff, but McVicar’s by-the-book, if flouncy, camp Adriana is an antidote in times of austerity Olivero’s long association with Cilea’s protagonist spanned three decades. When she first sang Adriana, at 29, she gave the opera a new lease of life, earning the composer’s eternal gratitude.

It also led to the widely held assumption that the opera is primarily a vehicle for a senior diva. Pandolfini was 31, Giachetti was in her late twenties, and Gheorghiu is in mid-career, no longer a young soprano, but not yet a veteran.

She looks gorgeous — slim, elegant, vivacious — in Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s shimmering period frocks and sings, often exquisitely, with her characteristic bittersweet, dark-toned but light-lyric soprano.

Hers is a perfect Mimi and Liu voice, or Magda in Puccini’s La Rondine, but her Adriana seems under­powered in the crucial middle and low registers, and she gives the impression of busking through David McVicar’s staging with her usual repertoire of artificial poses, flouncy gestures and pouty faces, which marred her Tosca here.

Gheorghiu has won stardom through her superbly sung EMI recordings, but she doesn’t qualify as a true opera goddess: the lazy diction, casual acting, small-scale singing of her arias and spoken delivery of her Racine monologues rob her Adriana of the requisite rhetorical grandeur. If she doesn’t project more voice this week, she will be petits fours for the princess’s afternoon tea when Olga Borodina replaces Michaela Schuster on Tuesday.

Even so, this is a glamorous night at Covent Garden. Kaufmann still attracts carpers who find his dark, gritty tenor insufficiently Italianate, but it’s hard to think of a real Italian today who could sing and play this kind of role with more visceral passion and personal charisma. He looks as good as he sounds — a gift to opera directors of the DVD/HD cinecast age. Schuster’s handsome princess is more unconventional casting — her timbre may not be idiomatic, but she’s feisty and formidable, Wagner’s Ortrud in a panier frock.

McVicar and his set designer, Charles Edwards, serve up snapshots from the era of Madame de Pompadour on a revolving skeleton of a baroque theatre — the Comédie Française or the court theatre of the Palais-Royal — which serves the different locations of the action surprisingly well. McVicar is probably the only director in the world who can get away with such a retro-looking staging today, because he packs it with action. There are vividly etched cameos from Alessandro Corbelli’s moving theatre director, Bonaventura Bottone’s Abbé and the all-Brit quartet of Adriana’s fellow thesps. He also has an eagle eye for musical and theatrical detail. Mark Elder and the ROH orchestra, too, make an unexpectedly strong case for Cilea’s tinsel-orchestrated and tuneful score. Hair-shirts may sniff, but McVicar’s by-the-book, if flouncy-camp Adriana is an escapist antidote in times of austerity (for those who can afford the tickets, of course).


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