Picnic in the Harem, or, Die Entführung aus dem Serail at Glyndebourne

 

My trip to the UK has been a weird crash course in postcolonial studies. First I saw Lakmé, a veritable celebration of British colonialism, in posh Holland Park, at an opera house whose tickets contain a note about where to position your pre-opera picnic. Then I went to Glyndebourne, an elaborate imperial picnic venue which also happens to perform opera. And there I saw, of all things, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, an older and less Britain-centric exotic relic, but, still. (Then there was Guillaume Tell, which was less site specific.)

Rest assured that I did not plan this–but, since the other operas on at present include Falstaff and Aida, I likely would have ended up in the same place even if my choices had been somewhat different.

Anyway, I arrived in Glyndebourne with my friend and our picnic and I enjoyed the gardens and sheep and the fancy dresses of everyone else who was out in rural England for opera in the middle of a Thursday afternoon. It really is a beautiful and relaxing setting. I don’t think that Calixto Bieito’s Entführung (an example I use altogether too frequently but what else would work here?) would be at home. It’s not that provocation and leisure are incompatible, and the Glyndebourne model in fact offers ample time for reflection. But, on another level, how pleasant does your sex slavery Singspiel have to be for it to go with your picnic?

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Death Clown for Cutie (Cav and Pag at the Met)

 Men are sensitive and easily injured souls, as ten minutes in any internet comment section would tell you. Such is also the gist of Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, the august double bill of verismo which presents us twice with the even more august situation of baritones interfering with soprano-tenor relationships and it all getting very bloody. In the Met’s new production, Fabio Luisi makes these high octane scores sound quite classy, but otherwise the two diverge: a dreary, clunky Cav is followed by a fun and punchy Pag. Oh, one other thing in common: for better and for worse, Marcelo Alvarez is the tenor. I shouldn’t be putting that last, which might give you an idea of what is going on here.
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You say you want a revolution (Figaro times two)

Like the ending of Don Giovanni, the finale of Le nozze di Figaro restores order and hierarchy. But, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that this peace between master and servants is a tenuous one, and only a few years later the underclass would not be so placated. Today, its title characters’ suggestions of insurrection may be less incendiary than they were at the opera’s premiere but they are instead indexical—well, sometimes, at least. The Ghost of French Revolutions Future occasionally haunted the two Figaros I saw recently*: the McCarter Theatre’s production of Beaumarchais’s play in Princeton and the Royal Opera House’s revival of Mozart’s opera in London.

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Maria Stuarda loses her head on the eve of 2013

“I had a dream my gala would be/So different from this pilgrim dress I’m wearing…”

One of the less-noted trends of the Peter Gelb era has been the renaissance of bel canto (and bel canto-adjacent) opera at the Met. So far we have had new productions of Anna Bolena, L’elisir d’amore, La fille du régiment, Lucia di Lammermoor, La sonnambula, Armida, Il barbiere di Siviglia, and Le Comte Ory (as well as Don Pasquale just before Gelb’s regime began). To this list you can now add Maria Stuarda, the middle installment of a Donizetti “Queens” trilogy directed by David McVicar. (This began with Bolena last season, the final entry will be Roberto Devereux, reportedly featuring Sondra Radvonovsky next season.)

I think bel canto has proven compatible with two of Gelb’s artistic priorities: star casting and slick but literal-minded storytelling (the latter often in the guise of “accessibility”). Most of these productions have been sold on the fame of their casts. Many of the operas themselves have colorful settings and no obvious complicating social or metaphysical angles (Mary Zimmerman’s high-concept Sonnambula was an exception in this regard). They are primarily showpieces. But for this rep to be anything more than routine and mundane you need real star quality singing and charisma. Unfortunately only a few of these productions have found the people capable of that.

Maria Stuarda is OK, but there’s still a certain fire missing.

Donizetti, Maria Stuarda. Metropolitan Opera, 12/31/2012. New production premiere directed by David McVicar with sets and costumes by John Macfarlane, lights by Jennifer Tipton, and choreography by Leah Hausman, conducted by Maurizio Benini with Joyce DiDonato (Maria Stuarda), Elza van den Heever (Elisabetta), Matthew Rose (Talbot), Joshua Hopkins (Cecil), Maria Zifchak (Anna).

I guess you have to give David McVicar some credit. Unlike quite a few Met directors, he definitely knows what he is doing and rarely produces the giant “WTF?” moments many other recent stagings have induced. But he hasn’t been very inspired recently, either, and this production is no exception.

McVicar’s Maria Stuarda production is more colorful and flashy than last year’s Anna Bolena, but otherwise similar. The costumes are exaggerated period with some tweaks of design and color, the sets minimal and austere. (Both are designed by John Macfarlane.) We open with a big old party, a convenient place for McVicar to stick his compulsory acrobats. But almost everyone is wearing pure white, which cuts down on the bacchanalia factor.

The rest of the evening is less busy, with about one striking thing per scene while the rest is by the book. Queen E wears a wide red skirt that opens like curtains to reveal pants (performing masculinity oh so subtly) while her rival Maria Stuarda (Mary Queen of Scots) and her cohort dress in plain black. There are a few strong images: the tiny windows of Mary’s prison, the backdrop filling with the orders she wrote when she was queen, and her sad end, in which she reveals a red dress for her final ascent to a giant executioner. (This executioner is, by the way, fully clothed–where is the McVicar of yore?)

McVicar and the cast create a stark contrast between serious, gracious, and feminine Maria and cranky, assertive Elizabeth, the latter adopting a lurching gait and little royal dignity. (I don’t remember the opera’s Schiller source, which I saw in an excellent Donmar Warehouse production a few years ago, as nearly this unsubtle.) Maria is meant to excite the most sympathy, but is shorted on exposition and backstory, and in this production rarely appears more than mildly perturbed. Elisabetta is a far more interesting character, and here developed much more vividly. She has a country to run and alliances to make. Who really cares for this plain imprisoned lady who only occasionally works up a decent curse?

The production is, as a backdrop, perfectly OK. It would be fine as a frame for brilliant and passionate performances. Unfortunately we didn’t really get those and it remains kind of weak sauce. Both ladies are miscast and neither projected on the grand scale required.

This was conceived as a vehicle for Joyce DiDonato. While the role of Maria Stuarda is usually sung by a soprano, some transposition makes it workable for her mezzo. There’s a long history of this kind of transposition, I don’t object (though in the final scene having a true soprano floating above is more effective), but DiDonato just doesn’t seem right even when it has been lowered. While she sings the notes with exemplary musicality, expression, and taste, her sound is more thin than plush, which in this kind of thing is a problem. Under pressure her tone acquires a pronounced bleaty vibrato, at soft dynamics the vibrato disappears entirely. And her intonation is (or was in this performance, at least) highly problematic, tending flat towards the ends of phrases and in cadenzas wavering all over the place. Sometimes she caught it and corrected but I found it a constant distraction preventing me from ever becoming immersed in her performance.

I wasn’t terribly convinced by her acting, either, which seemed too mild to play up to me in the Family Circle. A few big moments–that curse–were staged as Dramatic Actions, but then her voice didn’t really back her up. Maybe it was more convincing closer up, but she never convinced me of her star-ness. I’m sorry to pile on but these are pretty serious issues for a major singer in a new production.

Elza van den Heever gives a striking performance as Elisabetta, with a variety of impressive costumes, but her hip-swaying is more Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth than it is Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth. I did appreciate her spirit, though, and she takes far greater dramatic risks than DiDonato appears to. Her voice lacks the sheer tonal beauty and evenness between registers to be ideal for this repertoire, and has a very prominent vibrato. But it’s certainly an interesting and compelling instrument, very powerful at the top and well-controlled (impressive coloratura for such a large voice), and it will be interesting to see how she develops (possibly in a Wagner-Strauss sort of direction?).

Matthew Polenzani is better as Leicester than he was as Nemorino in the fall. He is vocally impeccable, with a far wider tonal palette than either of the ladies, and the voice is just the right size. The older, more established Leicester is a better fit for his personality and age than goofy young Nemorino was. But the role is basically standard tenor posturing, and he never really got a big star moment. The supporting cast was competent but bland, with none sticking very strongly in my memory. The chorus, though, was fabulous, and made the music sound far better than it deserves to (bel canto choruses are, I must admit, a pet peeve of mine–so boring!), and Maurizio Benini’s conducting seemed perfectly fine to me, certainly better than his work in Elisir.

But there’s nothing here that holds a candle to Anna Netrebko in Anna Bolena. I’m sure it will satisfy Joyce DiDonato fans, because there is indeed a lot of Joyce DiDonato, but to me it was rarely more than middling. Since bel canto is not really my preferred variety of opera, my standards for enjoyment may be unduly high, but this one didn’t draw me in.

Maria Stuarda runs through January, with the inevitable HD broadcast on January 19.

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Les Troyens, the Royal Opera House for a horse

At least the horse is good. But the Royal Opera House’s straightforward new production of Les Troyens isn’t nearly as exciting as it should be. The cast and their singing are the best of it, and both Anna Caterina Antonacci and Eva-Maria Westbroek are well worth seeing, but somehow it underwhelms. David McVicar’s production is, for the most part, not bad, but it’s not much more than average, and the whole affair never coheres enough to rise to the occasion–the occasion, in this case, being a vague Olympics tie-in and the eternal “we’re putting on a quasi-all-star uncut Les $#!&ing Troyens, the biggest opera around that isn’t in four parts.”


Berlioz, Les Troyens. Royal Opera House, 7/1/2012. New production directed by David McVicar, sets by Es Devlin, costumes by Moritz Junge, lights by Wolfgang Göbbel, choreography by Andrew George. Conducted by Antonio Pappano with Anna Caterina Antonacci (Cassandre), Fabio Capitanucci (Coroebus), Bryan Hymel (Aeneas), Eva-Maria Westbroek (Dido), Hanna Hipp (Anna), Jin-Min Park (Iopas), Brindley Sherratt (Narbal), Ed Lyon (Hylas).

David McVicar is a smart and slick director, but rarely a profound one and over the past few years his productions seem to be losing more and more intellectual weight. (I think his Faust is legitimately brilliant, and I love his Zauberflöte, both at the ROH, but his more recent Anna Bolena and Trovatore, both at the Met, are adequate at best.) For Troyens he pulls one of his favorite tricks, setting the opera in the time in which it was composed, here around the 1850s. But that’s about the extent of his Konzept, which never creates a compelling reason for why this siege and escape happen. Who are these Trojans, Greeks, Carthaginians, or future Romans? (This exposition is something McVicar achieves with model efficiency in his Giulio Cesare, seen nearly everywhere already and coming to the Met next year). It doesn’t have to be a historically specific definition–though since he sets the piece in a historically specific milieu that might be the most satisfying–but it has to be something dramatically convincing. Here too much is left empty, with familiar-looking nineteenth-century images that do little to define the setting or characters. Nor did the cast seem to be on the same wavelength as this setting, or for that matter with each other.

The Troy acts are far easier to stage and the production works best here. The Trojans have holed up in a vaguely steampunk setting of industrial detritus surrounding a giant metal tower. Why the industrial stuff? I thought momentarily of the broken machines in Heart of Darkness, but that’s all I got. For people suffering under a long siege the Trojans look damn good, the women in beautiful dresses and the men in elaborate uniforms. (While I’m not sure why it was there, much of the design in this half is very striking.) Swooping through all of this is Anna Caterina Antonacci’s old school Cassandra, with the dramatic postures and oversized gesture of, maybe, the 1850s, or a visitor from Planet Sarah Bernhardt. Eyes painted on her hands lets her tell people’s fortunes–based on her reactions, most of them aren’t getting happy endings. If there’s anyone who can pull this kind of thing off it’s Antonacci, and she’s great fun, but Gesamtkunstwerk it’s not.

The set piece effects in Troy work well. While the Horse might seem a challenge I’m pretty sure that as long as you produce something very big and equine it’s going to be a hit, and this one, welded of abandoned weapons and snorting fire, is no exception. It looms large and is very exciting. McVicar does a good job with the ceremonies in this act as well, coming up with something convincingly ritualistic and appropriate to the music. The dancing, however, made me decide that if I ever run an opera company I will ban the use of cartwheels, somersaults, handsprings, back handsprings, backwards somersaults, and any other gymnastics in all of my productions. (The dances in Carthage made me want to expand this ban to all dance entirely–more on that in a second.)

While the Troy acts are all dark excitement and desolation, Dido’s Carthage is a land of plenty and peace and sunniness. The dark metal tower turns into a multi-tiered sandstone city, as well as a model of a tiny city that variously sits on the stage and hovers above it to no clear purpose. Unfortunately McVicar gives into a wide variety of tired Orientalist cliches out of an unironicized Ingres painting (without the nudity, surprisingly enough). Like in many other productions of Troyens, the Carthaginians have built a glorious city but not yet discovered chairs, and prefer to languish on cushions while wearing robes and shiny jewelry. The dances are more frequent and far more annoying, with lousy slinky choreography, some horribly tacky rainbow costumes and, during a typically McVicarian naiad abduction in the Chasse royale, a tree that bursts into flames. Presumably it was struck by lightning, but the effect is that Aeneas and Dido’s love is signaled by a burning bush, Old Testament style.

There is some lazy stagecraft in the last act, with a large portion of Dido’s final scene played extreme downstage in front of a black curtain, presumably as the pyre is set up behind it. While this got Eva-Maria Westbroek right down to the apron, it’s more than a litle anticlimactic and out of character for the rest of the production. The final step, however, is a mistake not of economy but of opulence. Perhaps skip the rest of this paragraph if you don’t want to be “spoiled” but a giant head with a pointing hand enters at the curtain, looking like a man version of the Horse, presumably pointing Italie-wards. Maybe it’s Hannibal. Whatever, it’s embarrassingly like a last-minute cameo from the Terminator (not, strangely enough, pictured in any of the official photos).

McVicar knows how to create engaging Personenregie, but the staging fails to provide a larger vision, and the weirdness in the design and especially the dance unwelcomingly recalls the commodity elements of the grand opera genre. It’s a luxury buffet of what we purportedly want to see, unfortunately all the dishes don’t work together. I must say the lighting is gorgeous, though.

The cast ranged from decent to excellent. Antonio Pappano’s conducting was straightforwardly exciting and quickly paced, but tended to shortchange Berlioz’s quirkiness. I missed the orchestral detail, unusual timbres, and rapid changes of mood of Colin Davis or John Eliot Gardiner. The orchestra sounded absolutely excellent until the end, when the brass began to tire. The chorus sounded super the whole way through, and with this opera’s number of choruses that makes a big difference. The aforementioned Antonacci was surely the highlight, out of place as she was, she can declaim with such conviction and vivid presence that you forget anyone else is onstage. It’s a shame Cassandre is only in the first few hours of this epic–and only Antonacci managed to transmit a sense of the epic.

Antonacci also held a monopoly on gravitas among the cast, the rest of whom were lacking in this department. I like soprano Didos, and Eva-Maria Westbroek’s shimmering tone suits the part. She sounded lovely despite a certain lack of French style. But I wasn’t entirely convinced on a theatrical level. In roles like Sieglinde her down to earth, big sister stage persona is a great asset, but it worked against her here. Her Dido began insecure and worried and only gradually gained in stature (as her voice tired)–but it was too late, in my opinion. This interpretation could have worked had the production fit it, but as it was the second half lacked a strong center.

As Aeneas, Bryan Hymel sang some spectacularly powerful high notes, and his super technique kept his smallish voice even and consistent through the entire long role. But despite really throwing himself into it, both he and his sound are severely lacking in glamour and charisma–the voice is basically monochromatic and plain, particularly in the lower register, and like Westbroek he seems like a guy you’d hang out with rather than an ancient hero. (I have little doubt he sang the role far better than Giordani is likely to do at the Met in December, however.)

The supporting cast was solid, highlighted by Hanna Hipp’s Anna, who was slow to warm up in the duet with Dido but whose rich tone sounded absolutely lovely in the duet with Narbal. Fabio Capitanucci was a stiff but authoritatively-voiced Coroebus, Brindley Sherrett a first-rate Narbal, and Ed Lyon one of the few cast members who sounded French-ish as Hylas.

After around four hours of opera, I peered into the pit to see a cellist flipping to the back of his part, counting the pages remaining. I hate to say it but I could kind of see his point. This was a missed opportunity.

Related:
Les Troyens at the Deutsche Oper Berlin

Photos copyright Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House

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Anna Bolena at the Met: the dress rehearsal report

This year’s opening night at the Metropolitan Opera will be a new production of Anna Bolena starring Anna Netrebko. I saw the open dress rehearsal today. Like when I saw her sing the role for the first time in Vienna in April, it’s all her show, and it’s a real star turn. But unlike in Vienna, the rest of the cast is solid and David McVicar’s production is a class act. I’m not going to be too critical or specific regarding the singing in a dress rehearsal, but here’s an idea of what we’re getting.


Donizetti, Anna Bolena. Metropolitan Opera final dress rehearsal, 9/22/2011. New production by David McVicar, conducted by Marco Armiliato with Anna Netrebko (Anna Bolena), Ekaterina Gubanova (Jane Seymour), Stephen Costello (Percy), Ildar Abdrazakov (Henry VIII), Tamara Mumford (Smeaton).

This is the first time Anna Bolena is being performed at the Met. The story is fairly familiar to English speakers and/or fans of The Tudors: bass Henry VIII is tiring of his soprano queen Anne Boleyn (Wife #2) and is eying her lady-in-waiting mezzo Jane Seymour. Through a combination of bad luck and a stupid tenor ex-boyfriend named Percy, Anne is convicted of adultery and sent to the chopping block, so Jane can become Wife #3.

Back in April I already liked Anna Netrebko’s Anna Bolena quite a bit. Since then she has only grown, keeping the intense sincerity and glamor but adding a great deal more dramatic specificity and complexity. Her Anne Boleyn is a character of real strength, grandeur, and vulnerability at the same time, conflicted between her husband and ex, treacherous lady-in-waiting, and so on. Her voice is as luscious as always, and easily fills the Met without pushing; in this morning rehearsal she took a while to warm up, but improved steadily to a magnificent final scene. In a word, a fierce portrayal. I can’t say I like this opera too much, really, but if you like singing I think it’s worth seeing just for her performance.

The supporting cast is on the whole somewhat preferable to that of Vienna, with Ildar Abdrazakov’s imposing, solidly sung Henry VIII as the standout. He also gets the production’s best costume, in which he looks like that painting of Henry VIII you are seeing in your head (he must be wearing a lot of fabric, he’s not that wide a guy). Indeed, Netrebko showed considerably more chemistry with him than she did with her supposed beloved, Percy, given a rather awkward portrayal by Stephen Costello. It’s been a while since I’ve heard Costello (I first saw him way back in his AVA days, though I never did write the detailed review I promised here) and this time the tone color of his compact tenor reminded me of a more lyric Juan Diego Flórez. Ekaterina Gubanova was a very, very Slavic Giovanna (Jane Seymour), but one with force to spare and some nice musicality as well. Actually, the voices fell into two distinctly national categories: the dark, somewhat thick Slavic ones of Netrebko, Abdrazakov, and Gubanova, and the more clear-toned Americans Costello and Tamara Mumford as Smeaton, whose gorgeous, graceful singing here maybe will finally get her the breakthrough she deserves.

The chorus continues to improve and the orchestra sounded fine. Marco Armiliato was the reliable Kapellmeister he always is. You’re probably not going to go out thinking “wow, that’s some conducting,” but he gets the job done smoothly.

If it hadn’t been for a bloody Smeaton stumbling around in Act 2 and a threatening executioner at the very end, I may never have guessed that the production was by David McVicar. There are almost none of the familiar McVicar clichés: no odd dancing, no naked guys (despite the Tower of London prisoners’ uniform of buttonless shirts and Elizabethan Bermuda shorts), no mini theater. It is about as traditional as it gets. Robert Jones’s sets are minimal, a few pale stone walls, an elegant paned window, and a vaulted ceiling. Jenny Tiramani’s costumes are elaborate and scrupulously period with many pearls and square necklines except for their predominately black and white Pilgrim chic color palette (with some more color towards the end, according to no logic that I could see). Paule Constable’s lighting is painterly and sometimes quite dark.

It’s a well-crafted production; McVicar is a master of directing singers in a way that focuses each dramatic beat to clearly tell the story. We always know what is happening. The movement is musically sensitive, the many choruses are handled with aplomb, and when standing still downstage belting it out is what’s required, that’s what we get. It’s unusually well paced and seemed hours shorter than the limp Vienna production. Overall it’s the best traditional production I’ve seen at the Met since, well, McVicar’s Trovatore (when it was new). But he’s capable of much more perceptive, interesting and creative work than this, and I wish we had gotten some of that instead; I expected more out of him than what we get here. It’s true that it’s not a great libretto and doesn’t present too many opportunities, but still.

One staging cliché McVicar does fall into too often is the old bel canto turn-around. “I was just leaving, but this new, faster accompanimental figure started up and I thought I would dramatically spin around and sing a bit more, OK?” He uses it a lot. It’s effective, but on the twentieth time, not as much.

I can’t imagine “the olds” who hold their conservative sway at the Met finding anything to object to here, there is even use of the stage elevator (which broke down and occasioned a 15-minute delay today) and some Irish wolfhounds led around in the hunting scene. There are a few touches that seem carried over from the Vienna production: the child Elizabeth I again makes a cameo appearance (this time in the first scene rather than the last), and once more Anna fussily pulls her hair up at the very end of the opera to better expose her neck. But it’s that neck that’s the important thing here, or rather the voice that comes out of it. Much of this show is more highly professional than exciting, but Anna is magic.


Anna Bolena opens on September 26 and will be broadcast in HD on October 15. I will add some more photos when I find them.

Photo © Brigitte Lacombe/Met Opera

Video: Anna Netrebko sings “Coppia iniqua” in Vienna in April (NOT the Met’s production!)

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Adriana Lecouvreur: You don’t bring me flowers

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.

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