It helped that both conductor and director have taken the work seriously. Mark Elder’s refusal to treat it as a sub-Puccini example of Italian verismo is crucial to the musical success. It is true there are times when the inspiration and craftsmanship is not always the most striking, but then come moments of lyric expansiveness, and orchestral originality and composition, that are so appropriate to the action that one submits to its charms readily. Yes, some of the themes associated with certain characters are rather overworked and underdeveloped and run the risk of being repetitive – particularly the three-note motif associated with the vindictive Princess de Bouillon and even the more expansive themes by which we, the audience, identify Adriana and Maurizio. Cilea (1866-1950) evidently understood his Wagner but was not able or was unwilling to develop the use of ‘tags’ beyond identity. The one moment of real interest that struck at this performance was the collision of themes that identify the two jealous ladies in the Prelude to Act Three. However, some of the orchestral complexion is strikingly individual, if fitfully. Elder kept textures quite spare and almost non-romantic and, ever singer-friendly, gave his principals room to colour and inject nuance into their big moments. And big moments the four principals all get!
Angela Gheorghiu is justifiably famous for the beauty of her voice and the absolute infallibility of her technique. The voice is not huge, but how much finesse there is to her vocalism, and her reluctance to sacrifice tonal purity for histrionic effects is evidence of an intelligent and knowledgeable artist. Her subtle use of dynamics and elegance of line (elegance is really the word here) held the audience rapt and extremely attentive. The ‘Poveri fiori’ of the final act was superbly delivered. The much excerpted ‘Io son l’umile ancella’ was marred only by a noticeable break of line before the final note that provides the resolution of key. Much of the part lies in the lower part of the voice and Gheorghiu managed to keep the projection and power in the low declamatory passages. From a dramatic point of view she managed to make Adriana more vulnerable and less overtly theatrical than other divas have, although her lovable nature was less prominent. There was a nice touch of improvisatory desperation and devil-may-care in the anger of her declamation from Racine’s “Phaedra” when she publically insults the Princess; and she managed the switch from spoken-word to song consummately. Sometimes actresses playing actresses can be overly hammy – not here. Her extinguishing the candles before allowing the Princess to emerge from hiding in darkness was deftly acted – it’s a silent set-piece as strong as Tosca’s at the end of Act Two of that opera after she has killed Scarpia. It is a role that suits Gheorghiu well, and she has the physical allure to be convincing.
Jonas Kaufmann was not as swashbuckling a Maurizio as one might have expected, but he too sang with generosity of rich tone and subtle use of volume. The character is a bit of a cad and weak. Kaufmann captured that side well, largely by dint of not resorting to ‘stand and deliver singing’. ‘La dolcissima effigie’ was nicely impassioned – but best of all was the martial ‘Il russo Mèncikoff’, which was superlatively accompanied by Elder. Alessandro Corbelli came close to stealing the show with his endearing Michonnet – he caught the absurdity and pathos of the character to perfection, never becoming simply sentimental – if only his music was a little more interesting! He does a wonderful line in hangdog expressions too! Michaela Schuster was a good foil to Gheorghiu as Princess de Bouillon and made the most of her big moment at the start of Act Two, ‘Acerba volutta’, especially when she warmed her tone to relish the ‘big tune’ at “O vagabonda stella d’Oriente”. She bristled nicely in her Act Three confrontation with Adriana. As her husband Maurizio Muraro was a strong presence, and Bonaventura Bottone made up for occasional lack of suppleness in his singing with his dramatic portrayal of the oleaginous Abbé. Of the acting troupe Janis Kelly’s Madamoiselle Jouvenot in particular caught attention.
David McVicar’s production is detailed and really managed to clarify the intricacies of the rather convoluted plot. The surtitles really helped, too – I had never realised the Prince was an amateur “pharmacist” and hence provided the Princess with her source for the poison. Charles Edwards provides a stunning set, essentially a model theatre modelled on the baroque theatres still extant in the world (such as the Margrave’s opera-house in Bayreuth, the reconstructed Cuvielles theatre in Munich’s Residenz, and the plainer but magical one at Drottningholm). It rotated gradually during the evening – in Act One we were side-stage, in Act Two the front apron provided a theatrical setting (with full footlights) for the garden intrigue, in Act Three we were amongst the Prince’s guests at the party and by the final act we were again back stage with all the artificiality of the flats and backcloths removed. Even the heater in the final act served to emphasise the deceit of the plot and illusion that is the theatre. In Act Three there was a gleeful relish of old dramatic techniques in the use of gauzes and an amusing representation of a baroque masque.
All in all this is a significant re-appraisal of a work too-often dismissed. It has much going for it, and it will also be interesting to see how this production revives in years to come (as it surely will) with other personalities in the principal roles.
- Adriana Lecouvreur – seven further performances at 7.00 p.m. until Friday 10 December
- Ángeles Blancas Gulín sings the title-role on 27 November & 10 December
- Olga Borodina takes the part of Princess de Bouillon on 30 November and for the December performances
- Box office: 020 7304 4000
- Royal Opera
- Interview with Charles Edwards
- Broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Saturday 4 December