Classics Today
Robert Levine
Ciléa: Adriana Lecouvreur, New York, Carnegie Hall, November 8, 2011
Francesco Cilea’s one everlasting success is Adriana Lecouvreur, premiered in 1902, but sounding so unabashedly Romantic that it could have been composed 20 years earlier. It might be referred to as “dainty verismo;” there are big, overtly dramatic moments with grand, show stopping arias and duets, but the connective tissue, featuring backstage shenanigans at the Comedie Francaise where the opera takes place (Adrienne Lecouvreur was a real figure; she died in 1730, when the opera is set) owes more to the chatter of minor characters in Massenet operas. The plot is a pile of murk: Both Adriana and the Princess de Bouillon love Maurizio, the Count of Saxony; rivalry ensues. Adriana somehow saves the Princess from being discovered in a sleazy situation but later insults her publicly. It the end, the Princess sends Adriana a posy of poisoned violets which take 18 minutes of gorgeous music to kill her in the arms of her beloved Maurizio, who shows up just in time.

The opera is hardly a masterpiece and works particularly poorly unstaged, as it was at Carnegie Hall as Opera Orchestra of New York’s first presentation of the season: the action is almost unfollowable. But it has a few ravishing melodies that Cilea uses over and over again – the odd thing is that they’re always welcome. The soprano has two big arias and duets, a very dramatic recitation and that Death Scene; the tenor has the same; the Princess has an aria and some fine confrontational music, and the Comedie’s stage manager, Michonnet, who also loves Adriana, is given some touching music. It must have a great singing actress with a true spinto soprano in the title role, and despite the fact that Angela Gheorghiu’s biography in the Carnegie program begins with the word “superstar,” which is true, this is not her role. Her voice remains gorgeous, with spun pianissimi, long lines (albeit in her own chosen rhythms) and a true attempt at great volume and pointed delivery in both spoken and “grand” moments, but she delivered a narcissistic reading of the part without the requisite power in mid-voice. Yes, Adriana is an actress and within the opera itself she acts a good deal of the time, but Ms Gheorghiu’s toying with her flowing gowns and fidgeting while others sing was hard to watch. It may have been exciting, but it wasn’t the alternately fragile and angry Adriana, it was a superstar soprano.

Joining her was the adored tenor Jonas Kaufmann as Maurizio. The voice seems to be able to do everything, and he too, shows off a bit much. His control of dynamics is remarkable: he sings softly for long passages in a type of croon which he can swell to great strength and volume at will and his tone is as handsome as he is presentable and elegant. He made as much of the role as he could and held nothing back. Georgian mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili took over the character of the nasty Princess and presented a hall-filling voice at every register. It was a pity that she flats on big notes above the staff. Michonnet was sung by Italian baritone Ambrogio Maestri, a big man with a big, impressive baritone voice. He is the opera’s most sympathetic character and Mr Maestri’s sincere attention to text and dynamics delivery made him live. The smaller roles involve a lot of quick babbling for the most part, and were colorfully taken.

Music director Alberto Veronesi led an unsubtle performance; very loud for the first half and very watchful of Ms Gheorghiu in the second – one would have liked to hear what went on at intermission between the two. The orchestra, playing, as suggested, at full throttle, occasionally sounded crude, but played accurately. Yes, there were thrills galore, but too often it seemed as if we, the audience, were being bombarded with star power at the expense of real drama. Never mind, the crowd roared.


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