Barnaby Rayfield
Ciléa: Adriana Lecouvreur, Royal Opera House, 22 November 2010
Christmas Only Comes Once a Century
What makes a hit? It is the eternal, and often very boring, question in all arts. The problem is that the symptoms of a flop are often exactly the same as a box office smash. More often than not, the question is not how could it fail, but why did the public latch on to this particular work? Why, for instance, of all the Alan Bennett plays (dealing with British establishments, spy rings, or famous writers) was it the comparatively obscurely themed History Boys that made it big in America? Why do people like Hitchcock's Rear Window, but not Rope. Critics say it is the badly painted sets, but have you ever seen a Hitchcock film with good sets?

Although hardly an obscurity, the reasons of Adriana Lecouvreur's position on the fringes are also hard to fathom. Like Tosca, Adriana Lecouvreur has it all; a lavish setting, a torrid, action packed plot and music to match. Yes, the death by poisoned violets is one of opera's more gigglesome demises, but stupid deaths never stopped Les Contes d'Hoffmann (death by singing), and Il Trovatore (throwing wrong baby on bonfire) from gaining popular affection. Based on Ernest Legouve's 1849 play of the same name, Adriana Lecouvreur, plays very sneakily with historical fact, taking the real Adrienne, friend of Voltaire and acclaimed actress of the Comédie francaise, and making her the wronged romantic heroine. She did indeed share Maurice de Saxe with the Duchesse de Bouillon, but the real Maurice was hardly the selfless adulterer of the opera, who sleeps with de Bouillon only for the good of Saxony! But Adrienne's provocative use of Phèdre to the duchess' face at a public performance was true, although the revenge of lethal violets is little more than a narrative prop; first pinned by Adriana to Maurizio's chest, then given by a resourceful Maurizio to de Bouillon, before being sent back, laced with poison, to Adriana anonymously. Adrienne actually died from a failed enema. Now there's an opera.

As has been widely pointed out, this is Covent Garden's first production of Cilea's tentative hit since 1906! That's a pretty poor show from a leading house, especially when it is such an obvious star vehicle, but finally Covent Garden have picked two stars and spent some money. Predictably, the ubiquitous David McVicar was chosen to direct, but then, who else can do traditional so well? Through each act, there is a huge wooden theatre, on a revolve, giving ample scope for McVicar's affectionate period look at backstage shenanigans of the 18th century, before in a nod to abstraction, becoming an empty and forlorn presence in Adriana's house. It's the detail that McVicar excels at, making much out of a tiny moment. Take the final act, where the jilted Adriana has forsaken acting. McVicar gets Gheorghiu to relax and slump on her chaise longue, in front of her friends, for the first time in her life not having to play to an audience. It is a production both lavish and living, or at least it would be if the set changes were quicker. This is an increasingly regular moan of mine with Covent Garden's big new production. Surely, something could be cut or redesigned to avoid both the halting between the first two acts and the second twenty five minute interval. Having a second interval after the third act is like having to put the bins out during coitus, particularly in a score as furious and fast paced as this.

But the content is worth waiting for. Playing a seasoned theatre star and with passages of recitation, Adriana is a role often cast for the diva at the end of her glory days, although Angela Gheorghiu is certainly not that. Although the elder of today's star sopranos, her shimmery, dark-hued voice has not aged one little bit. It's a mink of a voice with that glamorous, soft tone, concealing real bite when needed, but it is small for this sort of music, better in the studio where one can appreciate her great word colouring. She's wise enough not to force her voice in the theatre but the price is smudgy diction and cautious singing over louder passages. This is definitely not as weedy as her staged Tosca a few years back but this a very "lyrical" Adriana.

A class act as she still is, it does not help that she is partnered by Jonas Kaufmann as Maurizio, a superb choice individually, as his powerful Jon Vickers-style tenor is rather overwhelming to her soft-focus timbre. It is churlish to force Gheorghiu back on stage with her ex husband, but the fact remains, her voice did contrast rather pleasingly with Roberto Alagna's bright, pinging tenor. The sheer size and baritonal darkness of Kaufmann's instrument tends to blend in and drown her out. Still, what a pretty picture they make and both made the most of what the lurid libretto asks of them.

It is a shame the other woman was not in their league. Although it is good to see another mezzo other than Olga Borodina (she sings later in this run) sing the spoilt, man-eating princess, Michaela Schuster was sorely miscast. She is certainly loud enough but the role requires some sort of allure, a voluptuous tone, not forthcoming from Schuster's chesty, hard-as-nails voice, although her dramatic abilities were some payoff.

The biggest surprise was Alexandro Corbelli. After years of only hearing him sing Donizetti's and Rossini's pitter-patter grotesques, I had absolutely no idea he could sing "normally", demonstrating a warm, beautifully coloured legato line. Michonnet, one of opera's most pathetic losers, and therefore mainly blandly played, spends much of the opera, loving Adriana from afar, but Corbelli and McVicar are both aware that Michonnet's spoken monologue, observing his favourite actress onstage, is one of the finest examples of characterisation in all opera and they both make the most of Michonnet's excruciatingly fumbled attempt to propose marriage to Adriana. It helped, too, playing against such great character actors as Bottone and Muraro, singing the Abbé and the Princess' slimeball husband, respectively.

The conducting, too, confounded expectations. Odd that this didn't go to Antonio Pappano, who is known for precisely this sort of repertoire (a studio recording with him, Gheorghiu and Alagna was mooted years ago, but never came to anything) and I was worried that Mark Elder might just be too nice, or too concerned with presenting Cilea's score in a tasteful light, thereby missing the point. How wrong I was! There was nothing tasteless about what Elder did but he got the required passion out of the orchestra, without indulging the singers and without ladling the syrup on Cilea's many tear soaked passages (Cilea does like the solo violin in these sort of moments and needs a Mark Elder to stop us from gagging), nor holding back on the violent episodes. Act two's cat fight between Adriana and the Princess, both suspecting that they share the same lover, was an explosion of blood and oestrogen from the pit. Just as it should be.

So, aside from one cast member and the odd staging limitation, this is, all in all, a winning new production for Christmas, dripping in silk and tradition and mostly sounding fabulous. But is that enough for you? Are you going to see this, followers of fashion, even when the less starry Angeles Blancas Gulin takes over? Like anything else the "historical" opera world has its phases of taste and fashion but with such a small repertoire of popular works on a constant cycle, opera needs every newcomer it can get. Certainly this production, co-produced with four other international theatres, seemed primed to give this grand dame of melodrama the status it deserves.


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