I first saw Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur in the 1980's at the San Carlo Theatre in Naples, with Maria Chiara in the title role. It wasn't an opera that I knew, we'd gone because Puccini's La Boheme was promised, with Caballe (who in the event cancelled). As it turned out, we were entranced by Cilea's opera. People from English National Opera were seen in the audience, which led to gossip and rumour that ENO were considering a production of the opera with Valerie Masterson in the title role - which would have been extremely interesting had it come off.
As it happened, it was not until Opera Holland Park performed Adriana Lecouvreur in 2002, with Christine Bunning as Adriana and Rosalind Plowright as the Princess that I saw the work again. Whereas Plowright was wonderfully dramatic, Bunning was restrainedly elegant in the title role. This made me realise that, for the opera to work, it needed a real diva in the title role. Then in 2009, Chelsea Opera Group gave a concert performance with Nelly Miriocioiu and Rosalind Plowright. Here we had a nicely balanced casting, with Miriocioiu's performance restoring my faith in the work.
So now Covent Garden have presented a new production of Adriana Lecouvreur, their first since 1906! We saw it on Thursday 18th November, the first night.
David McVicar's production was entirely traditional, set firmly in the 17th century. Charles Edwards set was an entire delight. In Act 1, which is set back-stage at the Opera Comique, we see what seems to be the rear of the theatre, with the detritus of the back-stage dressing rooms in front. It gradually becomes apparent that what Edwards has created is a very large scale model of an 17th century theatre, one which almost entirely filled the Covent Garden stage. During Act 1 this model gradually rotated so that by the time Michonnet comes to describe Arianna's performance, we can actually see through the wings to the 'real' performance on the 18th century stage.
This model theatre stays central to the whole opera. In Act 2, the Prince de Bouillon's villa seems to be build out of the proscenium and fore-stage of the theatre. Then in Act 3, the ballet is performed on the model stage with the 18th century audience sat in front, their backs to us. Then finally in Act 4, Adriana's lodgings are in front of the theatre model, now stripped back to its basic wood. But it is at Adriana's death that McVicar presents his greatest coup; the main stage lights dim, leaving just the lights on the model stage and the member's of Adriana's acting troupe come forward on the model stage for one last time, the doff their caps and bow to Adriana. A truly magical moment, and one which makes sense of the dying fall of Cilea's opera.
But of course, all this would be for naught if we didn't have a diva in the title role. And Covent Garden have mounted the production around the diva de nos jours, Angela Gheorghiu. Gheorghiu's Adriana was a sensitive creature, not a temperamental monster, but one who could credibly hold the stage and fascinate all around, she looked fabulous, truly a cynosure for all eyes.
Musically the part revolves around the two big arias (her entrance aria in Act 1, Poveri fiori in Act 4). Here Gheorghiu did not disappoint, quite, but she sang Adriana with a quavery fragility, which was aided and abetted by Mark Elder's transparent accompaniment with the Royal Opera House orchestra. At her entrance she is supposed to appear, at the top of a staircase, rehearsing her part apparently unconscious of her audience back stage, this sets up a lovely dynamic for her opening aria. Of course, Edwards set meant that we were unable to have a grand staircase, so instead Gheorghiu was discovered in her dressing room, as supers moved away a screen; not quite the same thing, but effective and rather intimate.
The moment when Gheorghiu's performance disappointed most was in her big duet (duel?) in Act 2 with Michaela Schuster's Princesse de Bouillon. Schuster sang the Princess with a big, gleaming voice and you wanted Gheorghiu to match this, but she didn't.
By the end of the opera, I had started to warm to Gheorghiu's approach, but I did rather tire of her conscious emoting and the fragile quaveriness of her delivery. For me, Adriana is a spinto role and I would have liked more firmness and steel at times. In fact, having heard Rosalind Plowright twice as the Princess and heard her in the title role of La Gioconda, I just can't help wishing that someone would have asked her to sing Adriana when she was still singing soprano parts; her gleaming, passionate voice would have been perfect.
Adriana's love interest, Maurizio, was played by Jonas Kaufman. Now, I'd never heard Kaufman live before and his baritonal delivery took a little getting used to. On first hearing, you were surprised that he could deliver the top notes. But he did far more than deliver, Kaufman has a highly intelligent control of his idiosyncratic voice.
Somewhere in my archives I have a recording of the Act 1 love duet from Verdi's Otello, sung by Tiana Lemnitz and Torsten Ralf. The Swedish tenor shows himself willing and able to fine his upper voice down in ways that few Italianate tenors dare, so that the love duet for once is sung to a ravishing pianissimo. I was that that Kaufman did, supplying a series of gloriously shaded and finely performed moments.
Of course, he looked wonderful, every inch the soldier; glorious for once to have a tenor who is neither tubby nor tiny. And he rose effortlessly to the big moments, but it was his way with the quieter ones that counted, especially his duetting with Gheorghiu. I will still want to go back to Domingo's account of the role, with is glorious Italianate gleam, but Kaufman's intelligence in using his instrument won the day.
The other important role is Michonnet, the theatre manager; Adriana's friend who is in love with her, but never dare tell her. Alessandro Corbelli is adept at mixing comedy and pathos in comic roles, here the balance was adjusted slightly and we had a serious role with comic elements. Corelli can steal a scene without appearing to do anything and he brought comic timing and real pathos to the scene. In a way, he was the heart of the opera, without a central performance from Michonnet the piece will fail.
Michaela Schuster sang the Princesse with real relish, she ate the scenery but kept her voice within control so that it was never forced or over the top. It is a relatively short role, she only appears in 2 acts. But Schuster ensured that we remembered her for both musical and dramatic reasons.
The remaining cast were equally strong in the supporting roles. Janis Kelly, Sarah Castle, Iain Paton and David Soar as the four actors who animate the back-stage antics in Act 1 and re-appear in Act 4 to persuade Adriana to return to the stage. The four made a strong, vibrant ensemble. Maurizio Muraro was suitably authoritative as the Prince of Bouillon with Bonaventura Bottone as a delightfully camp Abbe.
The Act 3 ballet, The Judgement of Paris, was performed in Edwards' model 17th century theatre, with authentic, functioning 17th century scenery. The dancers had, by and large, authentic 17th century costumes (except for that of Paris which was closer to the 19th century). But Andrew George's choreography seemed to oscillate between camp send up, and 19th century period manners, which seemed to be a shame. Cilea wrote evocative 17th century style music for the ballet and we should at least take it seriously.
Cilea's score is beautifully melodic, as he makes full use of the melodies from his two hit numbers for Adriana. Mark Elder and the orchestra gave a sensitive and beautifully modulated account of the score, discovering in it far more than simple melodic bombast. Elder seemed concerned to bring out the fine textures of Cilea's orchestration; perhaps over concerned, there were moments when the performance could have taken a dose of something closer to high-voltage verismo.
Adriana Lecouvreur is quite a long opera, there's a lot of plot to get through and Cilea does it in 4 acts, lasting around 150 minutes. For some reason (probably to do with the logistics of the set), the Royal Opera chose to perform Acts 1 and 2 together, with a 5 minute pause between. There was a 25 minute interval after Act 2. Act 3 lasted just 30 minutes, then there was another 20 minute interval. This made a long-ish opera into something closer to a marathon. Thanks goodness the production was worth it.
I don't think the opera will ever be quite mainstream, but David McVicar and Charles Edwards have created a magical production and I do hope that the Royal Opera will bring it back and give other diva's the opportunity to sing Adriana's glorious arias in their proper context.
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