This is a production that should under no circumstances be seen while sober. Before a large glass of wine during second intermission, I had been enjoying a deluxe, reasonably intelligent star vehicle. And I admitted to myself that the score is really not that great. After wine, OMG two beautiful people singing beautifully on a beautiful stage and WHY does she have to die waahhuaaargh. If the mere presence of Angela Gheorghiu and Jonas Kaufmann together onstage is enough to put you into such a state, you’re all set. If your brain, like mine, requires some inducement to turn off, well, do what you need to do because once you stop thinking this is a giant sugar rush.
Cilèa, Adriana Lecouvreur. Royal Opera Covent Garden, 30/11/10. New production directed by David McVicar with sets by Charles Edwards, costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel, and lights by Adam Silverman. Conducted by Mark Elder with Angela Gheorghiu (Adriana), Jonas Kaufmann (Maurizio), Olga Borodina (Principessa de Bouillon), Alessandro Corbelli (Michonnet), Maurizio Muraro (Principe de Bouillon), Bonaventure Bottone (Abbate)
Thanks to the generosity of a benefactress who wishes to remain anonymous, I found myself in the first row at the Royal Opera on Tuesday night. Sitting in the first row, by the way, is awesome.
While David McVicar’s production is not quite as straightforward as it initially appears, it certainly has more than enough lavish period detail to satisfy the literal-minded. The libretto’s stage directions are carefully followed, right up to Adriana extinguishing thickets of candles at the end of Act 2.
The centerpiece of the set is a functional 18th-century stage, of the sort that can be seen today at Český Krumlov or Drottningholm. This one is modeled on a Baroque theater in Bayreuth (pictured in the program). We see it at various points from the sides, front, and back, and the gadgetry–ropes and pulleys, gods descending on a cloud, and rapidly changing flat scenery–are catnip for a tech nerd like me (I only wish they could have put in one of those cannonball-powered thunder effects*). It dominates even Act 2, the only act to not take place in a theater or involve a performance
This stage serves as a central plot function in the first and third acts (and serves as a realistic and atmospheric backdrop in Act 4), but through the entire opera a rather obvious symbolic one as well. The trompe de l’oeil curtains (which are period accurate), the mixture of two and three dimensions, and all those pulleys and ropes stand in for the plot’s layers of artifice and deception, or, less generously, its convolution. For these characters, life can be as staged as a play. But this makes it sound more illuminating than it is. It’s a nicer idea in general theory and aesthetics than it is in specific practice, and only in the opening of Act 2, when it serves the most symbolic and least literal function, does it really seem to help the drama of the plot. All the world’s a stage, etc.
But the production is elegant eye candy, opulent without being a Zeffirellian wedding cake. The lighting alone is wonderful, the Act 3 ballet is a delight. The Personenregie allows strong characters to emerge from the elaborate backdrops, from the colorful theater scenes at the start to the society of Act 3. The plot may be confusing, but the character relationships are drawn so clearly the drama keeps going at full tilt. Even if you can’t figure out quite why everyone is reacting the way they are at any given point, it does seem to express some kind of logic, which for this libretto is no small achievement. Adriana is such a flimsy piece to start with that a direct route seems the safest way of going about it, and while McVicar doesn’t take any risks here, he doesn’t make any mistakes either.
This production exists for Angela Gheorghiu, who is found at its center doing her very best impression of Angela Gheorghiu. This “Angela Gheorghiu” conveniently has a lot in common with grand and fragile diva Adriana Lecouvreur. With a few reservations, she is marvelous. Is her voice a little on the small side? Yes, and I would appreciate some chest voice, but the sound is totally gorgeous and isn’t it nice to hear an Adriana without a wobble for once? She’s lyric, but her sound is rich, smooth, and shaped. Is her acting kind of similar to what she does as Violetta (and I suspect also Tosca)? Yes, but Adriana is a very similar sort of character, and her mixture of grandeur, pride, insecurity, and artifice is just the right one, and she was genuinely heartbreaking by the end (after I had the wine). When she’s good, she’s really good.
Jonas Kaufmann sounded wonderful as double-dealing manslut Maurizio, more idiomatically Italian than I think I have ever heard him, and committed from the quiet notes up to the (very) loud ones. He is ideally cast as a romantic lead and puts together a charismatic performance, but even he can’t really get fickle Maurizio to add up to a coherent character. Through the first two acts he seemed committed to Adriana and to leaving the Principessa, only to completely ignore Adriana in Act 3 for unknown reasons. Act to act this makes sense but overall it is confusing and some directorial intervention could have helped. Like many things in this production, it is best not to think about this too closely and just sit back and listen.
While Gheorghiu and Kaufmann were recognizably of the School of McVicar (meaning generally good and detailed acting, plus a lot of grabbing each other), Olga Borodina’s Principessa came from a more melodramatic, fan-snapping place. I believe this was her first performance in this production (maybe second, she is not in any of these photos, which show alternate cast Princess Michaela Schuster), and I doubt she got as much rehearsal as the others. While more generic, her blunt style of casting imperiously dirty looks and pointing at people gets the job done, and as an unambiguous antagonist character, it didn’t matter as much that she seemed to be out of a different production. She sang as loudly and temperamentally as she acted, and got some louder singing out of Kaufmann than when he was trying not to step on Gheorghiu’s toes. I saw her in the Met’s Adriana in 2008, and she gave more or less the same performance here.
Michonnet is a role that is inevitably an “unexpected” hit, probably because he is the only character in the opera who seems to have both feet on the ground, as well as being a surrogate for the fascinated audience. And a hit Alessandro Corbelli was, with pathos, sensitivity, and humor. The other supporting roles were all on a high level, and showed the cohesion and detail that is the true reward of a new production. Bonaventura Bottone’s Abbate was a particularly sharply-characterized amusement.
Mark Elder’s conducting kept things moving and animated, less focused on the contrast between the light theater music and the serious stuff than, like the production itself, their similarities. The orchestra sounded excellent and never drowned out the singers, even from my front of house seat.
Cilèa’s score is more functional than memorable, but once you forgive it that and the many holes in the plot… wait, that sounds like a lot of forgiving, doesn’t it? Maybe it is, but Adriana has definite virtues as a star vehicle, with no scruples about sticking in undeservedly extended diva death scenes, pointless military tenor arias, implausible recognition scenes and rage duets, and all the other sorts of highs you expect out of Italian opera. When badly performed, it’s pointless (like at the Met’s last revival with the hopelessly miscast Maria Guleghina and a frequently modulating Plácido Domingo–Borodina was the only redeeming factor of that performance), but when done like this it can be a sort of drug. If you just relax and let it wash over you as an emotional button-pusher, it works much better than it does as a serious piece of anything. But it would be hard to find a better-sounding or better-looking operatic candy shop than this one.
This performance was taped for DVD, check it out and you may be able to hear my distinctive clapping. I am going to continue enjoying the unearned vacation of an extended stay in London, possibly at the ENO!
I traveled for four operas this fall and three featured cancellations in the leading soprano role. Who would have guessed that Angela Gheorghiu would be the only diva to sing as planned?
*Edited to add that you can see and operate one of these gizmos in the Theatre section of the V&A. It’s fun, but visually I think a wind machine would be a better idea…
Photos copyright Catherine Ashmore/Royal Opera, except the below.