Opera UK, January 2011
Ciléa: Adriana Lecouvreur, Royal Opera House, 18 November 2010
Adriana Lecouvreur
Like many an Italian opera composed at the turn of the last century, Cilea's romantic melodrama is based on a French vehicle for Sarah Bernhardt. The work has usually inhabited the fringes of the operatic repertory, ignored until a soprano with sufficient clout demands a production. The vocal demands on the diva are not excessive, so the assumption usually comes closer to the end of her career than to the beginning. Tebaldi, for example, famously wheedled Rudolf Bing into staging it at the Met in the twilight of her career. (Magda Olivero, probably the greatest Adriana, is still living but, at 100, unlikely to return to the part.) Apparently Covent Garden has hitherto resisted any such pressure, since this opening night was only the seventh performance there, the last one having taken place in 1906. Two comments heard at the champagne bar in the first interval: 1) 'A sense of occasion, money spent on sets and costumes, two great numbers in the first scene-that's why I come to the opera.' 2) 'This opera-what a load of bollocks.' The stage history of Adriana Lecouvreur may be charted in those two opinions.

The production created by David McVicar and his design team is exemplary straightforward, mostly in period, just a bit witty. Charles Edwards has constructed a theatre within a theatre, modelling his 18th-century Comédie-Francaise on Bibiena's jewel-box Margräfliches Opernhaus in Bayreuth but giving it a French inflection (think pink-ish). This mobile box serves for three of the four acts, seen from behind and from the side in Acts l and 4, and turned full-front for the ballet and recitation in Act 3. Behind the elevated stage, make-up tables and costume rails slide in and out, and McVicar cleverly sets up the heroine's first entrance by wheeling her curtained dressing room downstage and drawing back its drape to reveal the star soprano. Even the second act, at the Prince's Seine-side villa, contains a little stage with footlights. All this meta-theatre isn't exactly profound you mean life and theatre reflect each other? -but the detail and the imaginative expression of the concept are admirably done. Brigitte Reiffenstuel's costumes are gorgeous (although we nearly had a `wardrobe malfunction' with the diva's neckline in Act 4). For the third act Andrew George has choreographed a splendidly tongue-in-cheek ballet, The Judgement of Paris: it's in the style of an 18th-century masque, with Jupiter descending on a mechanical cloud, but with the dance steps given the slightest of modern inflections. The last moments of the evening attest to McVicar's attention to the whole narrative: at the death of Adriana, company members come forward and mournfully remove their hats. Bravi.

Since it's a star vehicle, what about the star? Angela Gheorghiu sang beautifully and acted effectively. The voice sounded small-scale in the first scene: perhaps she was merely stressing the umile in 'Io son l'umile ancella', underplaying according to the sentiment of the aria. Elsewhere she showed herself able to fill the upward phrases with the necessary power. The lines from Racine's Phèdre spoken at the end of Act 3 carried conviction and authority, and the poisoned beauty expired prettily. But, vocally speaking, she was unfailingly careful and restrained; never did she let rip, go over the top. This opera is no place for good manners, and thus the final impression she left was one of slight disappointment. There was much to enjoy in Gheorghiu's performance, but I'm not giving up my Olivero records.

The star turned out to be Jonas Kaufmann. Blessed with a tireless publicist and backed by an aggressive recording company, he seems to be everywhere these days, in the shops, on every new DVD, all over the blogs. Apparently he can do no wrong. What is surprising is that on this occasion he could do no wrong, contributing the most thrilling singing of the night, opening up gloriously in the expansive moments (not as big as Corelli, perhaps, but big enough), and filing the voice down to a genuine, honest-to-God pianissimo in tender passages. 'L'anima ho stanca' sounded appropriately world-weary, and he added muscle to the duets: if only the soprano had matched him throughout. It is a refreshing change not to have to wish you were hearing another tenor.

I had encountered Michaela Schuster before only as Herodias and so didn't know quite what to expect of Adriana's rival. She was impressive. If hers is not the beefiest or most velvety of mezzo-sopranos, it did what it was asked to do, and she acted the Principessa with great hauteur and self-regard. It says something about her talent that I can't get the melody of 'Acerba voluttà' out of my head. Alessandro Corbelli, seen here mainly in comic parts, knows his way around the stage; he turned in a very touching Michonnet. Maurizio Muraro was the Principe, Bonaventura Bottone the Abbé (unpleasantly sour in Act 3), and Janis Kelly and Sarah Castle the other actresses. Mark Elder and the ROH orchestra gave a beautiful account of the piece, treating the score as if it were really music and not just background noise for the diva.
To quote W.S. Gilbert, modified rapture.


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