Monday 28 July 2014

Adriana Lecouvreur

Cheryl Barker and Peter Auty in Adriana Lecouvreur - Opera Holland Park - photo credit Fritz Curzon
Cheryl Barker and Peter Auty
photo credit Fritz Curzon
Cilea Adriana Lecouvreur, Cheryl Barker, Peter Auty, Manlio Benzi; Opera Holland Park
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jul 26 2014
Star rating: 4.0

Stylish 1940's setting for Cilea's lyrical opera

Twelve years after their first production of the opera, Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur made a welcome return to Opera Holland Park (we saw the second performance, 27 July 2014). Director Martin Lloyd Evans re-located the work to the mid 20th century and designer Jamie Vartan provided some stylish 1930's style costumes. Cheryl Barker sang the title role, with Peter Auty as Maurizio, Tiziana Carraro as the Princess de Bouillon, Richard Burkhard as Michonnet, Simon Wilding as the Prince de Bouillon, Ian Beadle as Quinault, Peter Davoren as Poisson, Maud Miller as Mlle Jouvenot, Chloe Hinton as Mlle Dangeville and Robert Burt as Abbe de Choiseul, with dancers from English National Ballet, and Manlio Benzi conducting. The City of London Sinfonia is in the pit.

Jamie Vartan's sets made imaginative use of the face of Holland Park House. The play in act one took place inside the house with a caravan for Adriana and sundry back stage detritus and spare scenery. These were re-purposed in act two to create the stylish modern villa. Act three took place outside Holland Park House, now standing in for the Prince's mansion with the framework of the caravan creating a pavilion, with act four returning to Adriana's caravan, this time revealing a stylish 1930's style wooden interior.
Vartan's costumes were stylishly in period with an eye for the niceties; though Adriana was always beautifully dressed, there was just the gentlest hint that her taste was a little bit common compared to the Princess who was very soignee all in white in act two and all in black in act three.

This was the fourth production of Adriana Lecouvreur that I have seen, with this performance, David McVocar's 2010 production at at Covent Garden with Angel Gheorghiu, Michele Schuster and Jonas Kaufmann (see my review), a concert performance by Chelsea Opera Group in 2009 (with Nelly Miricioiu, Rosalind Plowright and Peter Auty), Opera Holland Park's 2002 production with Christine Bunning and Rosalind Plowright) and a production at the San Carlo in Naples in the 1980's with Maria Chiara. Adriana Lecouvreur was non-existent on the London operatic stage when I saw it in Naples and in fact there were rumours that people from ENO had come to see the production possibly as a vehicle for Valerie Masterson. Though at the height of the powerhouse years this operatic hymn to diva-dom seems unlikely. It is a tricky opera to bring off (as Covent Garden found). It requires a real diva of temperament in the title role, one who has the capability to sing the long lyric vocal line but who also has some bite.

The opera also has a slightly barmy plot, which no amount of tinkering can remedy. To Martin Lloyd-Evans's credit he didn't try, but presented the act two shenanigins (see Wikipedia for the full plot details) with dramatic commitment, imagination, and a nice element of humour (though no-one giggled thank goodness).

Cherly Barker made a stylish and glamorous Adriana, bringing a convincing theatricality to the spoken sections and a wonderful sense of spite in the act three extract from Phedre. Her act one solo had a lovely lyric beauty, and a sense of intimacy apt to the humble surroundings (a caravan!). What seemed slightly worrying was that, though poised, her relationship with Peter Auty's ardent Maurizio seemed a little cool a little too perfect (more Joan Crawford than Bette Davis). But Barker's Adriana really came into focus in the last act. Not with the great solo poveri fiori which was finely done indeed, but with the solo where she tells Maurizio that she will not marry him, that for her the crown will be one of laurel leaves. Barker's Adriana was first and foremost and actress and you sense that despite her distress in act four, she would have returned to work because acting was the most important thing in her life. It was a performance which grew on me and in the final act displayed intense power, theatricality and, yes, diva-dom.

Peter Auty made a wonderfully passionate Maurizio, completely believable in the intensity of his passion and the way  he was able to distribute his favours equally between two women (Adriana and the Princesse de Bouillon). Perhaps Auty does not have quite and ideally open Italianate sound, it seems a little covered. But his tenor has great freedom and a lovely evenness over the range. And a consistent ability to project Cilea's vocal lines with convincing passion and vibrancy.

Prncesse de Bouillon is a gift of a role and last time at Opera Holland Park in 2002 Rosalind Plowright at the scenery, and Tiziana Carraro did not disappoint. She was vibrantly passionate in act two with a thrillingly intense scene with Auty, and then in the subsequent intrigue brought off hiding in a broom cupboard under a sheet with great aplomb. In act three, the atmosphere fairly crackled and Carraro's body language was vivid even when she wasn't singing.

Richard Burkhard was profoundly touching as the stage manager Michonnet, very moving in the way he portrayed his unspoken love for Adriana. In many ways Burkhard was the linchpin of the production, the subtly drawn sane man around whom all the mayhem happened. Burkhard gave Michonnet a sympathetically intent feel and to a certain extent rather stole the show with his detailed yet finely sung and understated performance.

The four actors, Quinault, Posson, Mlle Jouvenot and Mlle Dangeville were played four of Opera Holland Park's previous Christine Collins Young Artists, Ian Beadle, Peter Davoren, Maud Miller and Chloe Hinton. They formed charming foursome, always popping up together and combining joy with style and a certain element of fun.  Robert Burt made a delightful Abbe de Chazeuil. into everything and far too fond of the young ladies. Whilst Simon Wilding was a fine upstanding Prince de Bouillon.

James Streeter provided the choreography for the highly effective ballet in act three which was danced by principals from the English National Ballet.

Cilea makes great use of the orchestra in the opera, with quite a number of orchestral interludes and the City of London Sinfonia did not disappoint, combining passion and suaveness in their performance. Manlio Benzi conducted with a clear feel for Cilea's idiom. It is easy both to over heat and to undercook the music, and Benzi walked a stylish line between the two, giving us a finely drawn but dramatic performance.

Despite some initial reservations, this was a highly effective and dramatic performance which came together in a powerful conclusion in the last act.

A revised version of this review appears in Opera Today.

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