Opera News, February 2011
Ciléa: Adriana Lecouvreur, Royal Opera House, 18 November 2010
Adriana Lecouvreur
Cilča's Adriana Lecouvreur made its Covent Garden debut in 1904, two years after its world premiere, in Milan, but vanished from the company after 1906. It was resurrected in a new staging by David McVicar on November 18. Elsewhere in the U.K., Adriana's presence has been equally limited, restricted to occasional concert performances, appearances by visiting companies and, in its centenary year of 2002, a staging by London's Holland Park Festival, which makes a specialty of Puccini and his contemporaries.

Puccini, of course, is Cilča's biggest problem. Puccini, the greater figure of the two, consistently displayed a range of technical skills, an inventive variety and an ability to structure that are not his lesser colleague's to command. Yet in the right circumstances, Cilča's most successful work can hold an audience, though it needs a convincing staging, a sympathetic conductor and a great protagonist — an Olivero or a Tebaldi, perhaps — to do so.

In Adriana's new Covent Garden emanation, the duties of recreating the doomed tragédienne of the eighteenth-century Comédie-Française fell to Angela Gheorghiu. Somehow the full diva mode of the character and the vehicle eluded her. Her silvery soprano shone in the last act — perhaps the best in the piece — in which she charted the music's dying fall with languorous sensitivity. But she failed to dominate the stage in the crucial entrance aria, "Io son l'umile ancella," or in the segments of spoken text where the actress simply has to act. Gheorghiu's Adriana was lighthearted, playful, kittenish, but never the serious artist dedicated to serving the creative genius the text presupposes. She made surprisingly little impact, for instance, in the scene where Adriana risks everything by humiliating her rival in love by means of a monologue from Racine. Overall, and not for the first time, Gheorghiu sold both her material and her own genuine talent short.

In a starry cast, Jonas Kaufmann was considerably more engaged as Adriana's politically ambitious lover, Maurizio. His ardent singing was as impressive as his bold acting, even if the ideal Latin timbre for the role (created by Caruso and subsequently most successfully sung by a string of Italian tenors) is not really where the essential center of his voice lies, wide-ranging and hugely impressive though his instrument is. Often, a distinctively baritonal quality was evident.

Bavarian mezzo Michaela Schuster sang a creditably brash but medium-scale Princess of Bouillon, reasonably matching Gheorghiu or Kaufmann vocally in their respective scenes together, if lacking their individuality of stage personality. Of the four main principals, the most detailed and distinguished overall was Alessandro Corbelli as Michonnet. Corbelli transferred the brilliance of his regularly impeccable buffo skills into a touching and finely observed portrayal of unselfish, unrequited love. Italian bass Maurizio Muraro made a notable local debut as a bullish Prince of Bouillon, while old-hand character tenor Bonaventura Bottone jumped and japed energetically at his side as his camp follower, the Abbé de Chazeuil.

Launched with some panache amid the vivacity of backstage bustle, McVicar's production, in designs by Charles Edwards (sets) and Brigitte Reiffenstuel (costumes), was hyper-traditional in mode and manners. That's probably the best, if not the only, way to do the piece, but it requires a conviction and a sense of purposive detail that were only fitfully on display here. The result looked a good deal kitschier than McVicar's best work, which generally covers its old-fashioned basis with enough theatrical craft and savvy to make it appear more up to the contemporary mark. On this occasion that level of concentration was noticeably absent.

Mark Elder conducted. As always, there was an admirable conscientiousness to the maestro's work; what was lacking was a sense of conviction in the realization of the piece's real charm, wit and passion that might have papered over some of its more noticeable cracks.


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