In the World of the Theatre: Charles Edwards and Adriana Lecouvreur [The Royal Opera’s Adriana Lecouvreur, 18 November-10 December 2010]

Written by: Mansel Stimpson

Mansel Stimpson talks to Charles Edwards the noted British set designer about his work on a new production of Francesco Cilea’s best-known opera…

Charles Edwards. Photograph: The Royal Opera

When you have director David McVicar and conductor Mark Elder working together in a new production for Covent Garden any buzz might well centre on them. However, competing for attention is the opera in question, Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, not been seen at Covent Garden since 1906 (when the work was virtually new), and then there is the teaming of Angela Gheorghiu with Jonas Kaufmann. Yet the feature of this production that has most strongly caught the attention of those behind the scenes lies in an area that rarely generates such excited anticipation. The talk is all about the set and about the way in which, going far beyond other occasions when huge mirrors have reflected the Royal Opera House’s auditorium, it involves putting a representation of a theatre into a production. To learn more about this unusual concept, I talk to the man responsible, the designer Charles Edwards.

I previously met Charles in 2004 and then as now he was at Covent Garden working on a production by David McVicar. Then it was Gounod’s Faust. Charles told me then that as a designer no less than as a director (he functions in both capacities) he attempts to avoid blandness by seeking out operas that contain something he can respond to in a personal way. However, he became committed to Adriana Lecouvreur without knowledge of any productions, so how could he be sure that it would resonate with him? “David McVicar and I have done four things together now: Billy Budd, Il trovatore, Faust and now Lecouvreur. David works with a number of different designers and he definitely feels that certain pieces are right for certain people. So as soon as he asked me I knew that there must be something about me which he recognised as being appropriate for this particular work. I knew too that with him directing it would not be a case of taking some easy, comfortable approach but that we would be looking at the tougher, harder elements such as the social hierarchy reflected in this opera. That is an element that always fascinates David as is apparent from his production of The Marriage of Figaro. It may not be an aspect that’s quite so immediately obvious, but there is nevertheless an upstairs/downstairs aspect to Adriana Lecouvreur and it’s an opera in which there’s an obvious sympathy for people lower down the ladder. And, of course, as you work on it you see more and more.”

Charles goes on to explain how a key moment in the preparation of this staging came when David, having already started to work with Charles on this project, visited him at home. “I’ve built models of various kinds ever since I was five. I grew up with a Pollock’s toy theatre and for the last twelve years or so I’ve been building my own model theatre which because of all the model-making involved in my job has become a fairly refined piece of machinery. There’s something magical about it, even though I say so myself, and people who come and see it are often astounded by it. So when David called he saw it. Sometimes he can be a man of very few words so, with Adriana Lecouvreur in mind, he just looked at what I had done with that model and simply said, ‘that’s it, that’s exactly what this piece is about’. And that’s how the concept was born, the idea of creating a theatrical metaphor that would connect together the various elements in an opera which, not being exactly homogenous in character, needs some kind of arc over the whole which connects it together.”

Sir Mark Elder. Photograph: Clive Barda/Arenapal

Those who know this opera will appreciate that while the stage does indeed play a considerable part in it in several ways, the attempt to create a unity and to reflect the truths that are being expressed necessarily involves some stylisation. “From the word go we didn’t want to approach the piece from a literal point of view but wanted the theatrical metaphor to be the strongest part of it.” Consequently the on-set theatre has a degree of artificiality even if that very characteristic has its roots in a real theatre. “I was in Bayreuth two years ago and looked at a theatre there, not Wagner’s opera-house but the beautiful baroque theatre the Markgräfliches Opernhaus. But what is fantastic about it is that so much of it is fake: a lot of the panelling and paintwork and a lot of what looks like three-dimensional architectural detail is in fact painted trompe l’oeil and it’s a miracle of artificiality. That makes it quite different from the stucco one sees in the Palais Garnier or here at Covent Garden so it is itself more like a model theatre. That was what I had in mind for this set and it’s important to me that people don’t see it as a reproduction of a functioning baroque theatre. It’s a toy, a reproduction of a toy, and it’s all slightly theatrical, slightly cardboard, in style – but not too much so because you have to take account of the humanity of the characters who live in it.”

Adriana Lecouvreur was first performed in 1902, an example of the verismo trend of the time which flourished in Italy when composers like Cilea (1866-1950), Giordano and Mascagni as well as Puccini embraced material that did not shy away from the ugly or sordid and was in many cases connected to contemporary life. Cilea, however, chose to set his opera in Paris in 1730 (although Marcel Carné’s great film Les Enfants du Paradis takes place a century later, this opera nevertheless brings it to mind) and he drew on a real-life actress in portraying his central figure. Charles tells me that Adrienne Lecouvreur (Adriana being a variant chosen for the opera) was noted for an acting style that was innovative for being far more realistic than that of her contemporaries. It’s also the case that Adrienne became embroiled in scandals and died unexpectedly and dramatically, so there are elements in this opera that are absolutely truthful. That background was in Charles’s mind when he started to plan; so too that while certain arias are well-known, the opera itself is not performed very often. “When taking on a work of that kind you don’t only follow the usual course that applies to any work – by which I mean getting into it so that you understand its dramaturgy and trying to find a journey through the piece – but you read about it, listen to it and study it so that even before you start to rehearse you become aware of any uneven aspects, of anything that might need a little bit of help.”

In the case of Adriana Lecouvreur the problems which Charles became aware of were twofold. “First, the way in which certain divas have put salient arias from this piece into their song-books is not necessarily helpful. The public awareness of them in that context means that a strong whiff of camp has become attached to them and that’s something which obfuscates and gets in the way of what Cilea was really trying to do here. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, while I admire Cilea’s great lyric skill and the way in which his music explores the psychology of the characters, he is not always good at getting plot-points over and especially in the first Act these are dispensed at very high speed in the middle of an ensemble that already involves a huge amount of stage-business either implied in the music or requested in the stage directions. Problems like that are challenging and it makes you realise in contrast just how brilliant people like Britten, Puccini, Verdi and Mozart were. So from a design point of view even before deciding on our conception of the piece it was necessary to work out a series of spaces which would help the audience to define what was going on.”

Adriana Lecouvreur, Royal Opera, November 2010. Photograph: Catherine Ashmore

To clarify further what was involved for Charles in this production, it is helpful to look at each of the four Acts in turn. The first one takes place backstage at the Comédie-Française where Adriana is one of two leading ladies and the one loved by the elderly stage-manager Michonnet whom she regards as a friend but not as a potential lover. He realises this when she confides in him regarding her love for a military man named Maurizio who is not, as she thinks, a soldier but the Count of Saxony. Rivalry between the players is a feature of this theatre-world and the opera foreshadows certain aspects of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, but Cilea writes music that captures a French tone while reserving a more full-bloodied Italianate style for a foreigner like Maurizio. “There’s a real delicacy here and it’s very feminine in style for a verismo piece with Cilea’s gentle side coming out in the French music. Certainly the true love-story here and the most touching relationship in the piece is that which concerns Michonnet’s infatuation with Adriana. In the first Act you start by looking at the model of the theatre from the back. The dressing rooms have been created by literally using old bits of scenery, screens and costume-rails so that the artists have established a bit of privacy for each other. The model is facing up-stage so if there was an audience it would be at the back of the stage looking towards the audience in the Covent Garden auditorium. But it gradually revolves so that you can see into the wings and by the time that Michonnet observes Adriana you too can see her playing to an audience, one which is by now way off in the wings.”

The second Act moves away from the theatre to a villa by the Seine and introduces Adriana’s rival-in-love, the married Princess of Bouillon whose unreturned love for Maurizio will eventually lead to tragedy. However, it’s a scene that carries distinct echoes of The Marriage of Figaro and is not unlike the farce Les Folies amoureuses (by Jean-François Regnard, a successor to Molière) which is being presented at the Comédie-Française together with a Racine tragedy. “Adriana can’t always distinguish clearly between what’s happening in a fantasy world and what’s happening in real life. That’s partly because the other actors treat the two worlds quite differently giving performances that are stylised and artificial, for Adriana the two are totally connected. Earlier she has read a letter which would normally be a stage-prop but which has turned out to be a letter from Maurizio saying that he can’t meet her that night and the two blend as though what’s going on in her head is almost schizophrenic. In Act Two when real life becomes like a theatrical farce it is as though she has ended up in somebody else’s version of somebody else’s play: consequently the theatre set is here turned around to suggest a world halfway between a set for a work like Les Folies amoureuses and the villa in which what is being played out is akin to farce.”

The third Act may take place in a ballroom but a stage plays a natural role here since a ballet on the Judgment of Paris (from Greek mythology, Paris being the son of Priam and Hecuba) is performed and Adriana herself, by now regarding the Princess as her rival, declaims a speech from Phèdre in a manner that recalls the play within the play in Hamlet. “The set enables us to see the whole thing from the front and from the point of view of the aristocracy: you have the balustrades, the chandeliers, and a full set of functioning scenery. The Judgment of Paris is played out in full baroque style and with choreography which, if slightly tongue-in-cheek, is definitely of that world.”

The fourth and final Act, in which Charles sees echoes of La traviata and which is also the one he feels is the best, leads to the reunion of now-retired Adriana and Maurizio and followed by her death when she smells violets that have been sent to her dipped in poison by the jealous and humiliated rival whom she has vanquished. “Kitsch and camp are the dangers here and we absolutely want to avoid them, to play down the melodrama and to play up the sincerity of the situation. But you have to be careful not to get unintended laughter. Cilea doesn’t help us to understand how Michonnet could so readily deduce who might have sent the flowers: it’s as though he has suddenly become Miss Marple! But we’re extremely lucky to have Alessandro Corbelli playing this role because he is one of the greatest of all singer-actors and has the ability to play potentially ludicrous moments with such understatement and sincerity that they become completely truthful and credible.

“In this last Act the theatre is still there but it’s dead, just like Adriana’s interest in theatre for her world of illusion has been shattered by what has happened between her and Maurizio. The theatre had been her whole life but she’s thrown it away, ripped out all the scenery and taken out the lights. It’s a bare, discarded toy. However, this opera concludes with a beautifully lyric postlude and in these closing moments we witness how the theatre acknowledges the passing of one of its great singers. It’s particularly poignant given the recent losses in the operatic world: Joan Sutherland, Philip Langridge, so hugely respected and loved. But Adriana is a great revolutionary singer who has ended up alone and lonely. The nearest parallel is with Maria Callas. I would say that Adriana Lecouvreur has parallels with Callas – which could be the reason why she never did it. It’s a tragedy that she never did the role.”

  • Adriana Lecouvreur – Eight performances at 7.00 p.m. from Thursday 18 November to Friday 10 December 2010 [Ángeles Blancas Gulin sings the role of Adriana Lecouvreur on 27 November & 10 December]
  • Box office: 020 7304 4000
  • Royal Opera

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