Friday, 3 March 2017

Taking the stage: Hrachuchi Bassenz mades Covent Garden debut as Adriana Lecouvreur

Cilea: Adriana Lecouvreur - Royal Opera House  (photo ROH / Catherine Ashmore)
Cilea: Adriana Lecouvreur - Royal Opera House
(photo ROH / Catherine Ashmore)
Cilea Adriana Lecouvreur; Hrachuhi Bassenz, Brian Jagde, Alessandro Corbelli, Ksenia Dudnikova, dir: David McVicar / Justin Way, cond: Daniel Oren; Royal Opera House
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Mar 3 2017
Star rating: 4.5

Armenian soprano makes notable debut in a gorgeous revival

The Royal Opera House's recent revival of David McVicar's 2010 production of Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur included a single performance with an alternative cast. On Thursday 2 March 2017, two of the cast were new, the Armenian soprano Hrachuhi Bassenz made her Covent Garden debut as Adriana, with Alessandro Corbelli as Michonnet, with Brian Jagde and Ksenia Dudnikova continuing from the earlier part of the run. Daniel Oren conducted.

McVicar's production (making its first return to Covent Garden) looks as handsome as ever, with a set based around a baroque theatre designed by Charles Edwards, and visually stunning costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel. The theatre is used as a metaphor for the artifice of Adriana's life and the final act is played out in front of a stage stripped bare, and, in a striking image, as Adriana dies the characters from the plays she acted in appear on stage and take their farewell. The revival was directed by Justin Way with lighting by Adam Silverman, choreography by Andrew George with Adam Pudney as the revival choreographer.

Ariana Lecouvreur needs an old-fashioned diva in the title role, someone with strong personality to carry the part, and the right technique to emote in the lyrical and deceptively simple arias. The tessitura is relatively low, so in the past the role was beloved of ageing sopranos, and was usually cast with a voice with something of a spinto edge to it. I first saw the piece in the 1980s (in Naples) with Maria Chiara on unforgettable form, at Opera Holland Park Cheryl Barker was notable in 2014 with Nelly Miricioiu performing it with Chelsea Opera Group in 2009. Covent Garden seems to lack the courage to entrust an entire run to anyone other than Angela Gheorghiu, and certainly they seem wedded to the idea of a lighter, more lyric version of the role.

Hrachuhi Bassenz is a soprano in the Angela Gheorghiu, Ermonela Jaho mould, with a voice which could rise to passion but lacked a real cutting edge to soar over the orchestra. Instead she produced some lovely intimate moments, and utilised the smoky tang to her timbre to fine effect.
This was her first performance at Covent Garden, so there were suggestions of nerves, her Act One solo seemed just a little too under-powered, too intimate for the size of the theatre (Bassenz is a regular at Nuremberg State Opera), and there was the suggestion that her colouring notes by approaching them from below could turn into mannerism. Her Act Three spoken passage (one of the climaxes of the opera) though thrilling, was a little to overshadowed by the orchestral accompaniment as Daniel Oren and the orchestra carried on as if accompanying a bigger, more dramatic voice.

I have to come clean here and admit that I prefer a more dramatic voice in this role, there were too many moments when I missed the thrilling ability to rise over the orchestra. But that is not Bassenz's fault, she is a lyric who has been singing Mimi, La Traviata, Liu, Queen of the Night and Countess (Le nozze di Figaro), recently moving to  Norma, She displayed a strong technique and an ability to command the stage. Adriana requires a somewhat old-fashioned approach to stage-craft, and Bassenz had this in spades, emoting and semphoring gloriously. In Act Four, though the basic plot device might be barmy, she brought off the brilliant sequence of dramatic moods that the heroine has to go through, dying with the right combination of drama and pathos. It cannot be easy making your debut in a performance at the end of a run, effectively standing in for Angela Gheorghiu, but Bassenz showed her mettle and we certainly need to hear her again at Covent Garden.

She was well supported by the American tenor Brian Jagde. He has a thrilling instrument, which also took time to settle down; Act One was a bit uneven, but from Act Two he showed what he could do. His might be quite a loud, very up-front interpretation of the role, but Jadge sang with a glorious evenness of tone across the range, and was not unstylish. Maurizio is, frankly, a bit of a boor and Jadge brought sheer commitment and thrilling tone to bear on making him bearable. In the Act One duet, there was a feeling of Jagde having the edge in the volume stakes, but by Act Four Jadge and Bassenz has moved to a more equitable partnership, making a spine-tingling conclusion. And Jadge's Act Three solo, depicting his recent military victory, was suitably thrilling.

Alessandro Corbelli, perhaps inevitably, brought out the humour in the role of Michonnet but this was another one of Corbelli's sad clowns in the mould of his Don Pasquale (see my review of Corbelli in the role at Glyndebourne in 2013), so that though Michonnet was funny at times he was touching too, and it was the pathos which Corbelli really brought out in Act One when he almost declares his love for Adriana. Corbelli sang the role when the production was new (see my review), and here he returned for the end of the run. His voice might perhaps not be quite what it was and the odd phrase sounded a little frayed at the edges, but the technique is still there, the ability to steal a scene without appearing to do anything; a masterclass in vocal and acting technique.

The fourth important character is the Princesse de Bouillon, Adriana's rival and a woman who appears to hold all the cards as she has the clout to help Maurizio's political career. But Adriana, in the famous scene in Act Three, is an actress and publicly insults the princess (at her own party) by reciting a scene from Racine's Phedre. Mezzo-sopranos playing the role can often dominate by simply chewing the scenery, but Ksenia Dudnikova was more subtle than that. Yes, she has a thrilling mezzo-soprano voice with, where necessary, a glorious lower register and wonderfully trenchant manner. But she sang with style too, and made the character more feminine, more believable than usual. This Princesse was less the older harridan and more a coherent rival to Adriana, and Dudnikova's icy calm after the Act Three insult was thrilling.

Krystian Adam was in gloriously camp form as Abbe de Chazeuil, combining being amusing with an underlying nastiness and delight in mischief. Four Jette Parker Young Artists, Thomas Atkins, Simon Shibambu, Vlada Borovko and Angela Simkin played the semi chorus of actors, Poisson, Quinault, Mademoiselle Jouvenot and Mademoiselle Dangeville, popping up to comment and explain. The Act One confusion with letters, one of the plot's crazier complex moments, requires an amusing commentary from them so that we can understand what is going on. Balint Szabo was suitably forbidding as the Prince de Bouillon, with Abramo Ciullo as the Major Domo, Keiko Hewitt-Teale as the chambermaid, Barbara Rhodes as Mademoiselle Duclos, and Kenneth Bryers as Pantalone. The dancers in ridiculously camp Act Three ballet were Owen Thorne, Keiko Hewitt-Teale, Nadia Sadiq, Chris Agius Darmanin, Trevor Goldstein, Barbara Rhodes, Rachel Maybank, Lucy Burns & Irene Hardy.

The orchestra was in good form, really letting Cilea's melodies glow (and there melodies aplenty in the score), but Daniel Oren seemed just a little too relaxed in the pit and I would have rather liked a bit more impetus.

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