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Angela Gheorghiu as Adriana Lecouvreur [Photo by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of The Royal Opera]
21 Nov 2010

Adriana Lecouvreur, Royal Opera

Two months into the current season, after a string of so-so revivals and a curiosity which deserved to be box-office dynamite but wasn’t, the Royal Opera has finally got round to a star-studded new production.

Francesco Cilea: Adriana Lecouvreur

Adriana Lecouvreur: Angela Gheorghiu, Ángeles Blancas Gulín; Maurizio: Jonas Kaufmann; The Prince of Bouillon: Maurizio Muraro: The Princess of Bouillon: Michaela Schuster, Olga Borodina; Michonnet: Alessandro Corbelli; L'Abbate di Chazeuil: Bonaventura Bottone; Poisson: Iain Paton; Quinault: David Soar; Madame Jouvenot: Janis Kelly; Madame Dangeville: Sarah Castle. Conductor: Mark Elder. Director: David McVicar. Set designs: Charles Edwards. Costume designs: Brigitte Reiffenstuel. Lighting design: Adam Silverman. Choreography: Andrew George.

Above: Angela Gheorghiu as Adriana Lecouvreur

All photos by Catherine Ashmore courtesy of The Royal Opera

 

Despite Adriana Lecouvreur being something of a rarity in the UK, having been absent from the stage of Covent Garden for more than a century, the prospect of Angela Gheorghiu taking on the title role for the first time was more than enough to justify the risk — though it is perhaps a sign of the times that it is a co-production with four other international houses, the largest number of collaborators I can ever recall seeing in an opera programme.

If I were producing an opera about theatre and actors, David McVicar is precisely who I would engage to direct it, given his knack for injecting opulent theatricality into the most naturalistic of dramatic situations. And if nobody had told me that this was one of his, it wouldn’t have been difficult to guess. The hallmarks were all there — the vast crowd of supernumeraries, the stage clutter, and Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s deconstructed-Baroque dance costumes to name but a few — but this time McVicar has gone one step, if not many steps further in the name of making a point about the nature of theatre and artifice.

ADRIANA-2442-0867-KAUFMANN-.gifJonas Kaufmann as Maurizio

It was heaven for a geek like me, thanks to the sheer number of references to other shows — maybe a natural progression from the score itself. Cilea was a contemporary of Puccini and Massenet, and most of the aural reminders are from this milieu, but Act 4 in particular evokes a wider range of influences. In McVicar’s staging, a balletomane friend of mine who attended the dress rehearsal picked up on direct references (costumes and choreographic devices) within the Act 3 ballet to Royal Ballet productions of La fille mal gardée, Invitus Invitam and Sylvia. The chorus crowded into their onstage audience-seating much as they did in McVicar’s Alcina for ENO in 1999; then, a marble bust of Handel dominated the stage; here the bust was Moliere’s. It was interesting that of all his own works, this was the one McVicar chose to reference; another opera about the blurred boundary between theatre and reality.

With Charles Edwards’s set dominated by a large box which for much of the opera served as a full-height, fully-formed stage-within-a-stage, the production seemed determined to underline that we were the audience, and what was happening before us was not reality. The mostly naturalistic scenery was garnished with little touches of artificiality; vividly ornate interiors, for example, were finished off not with heavy velvet draperies, but with curtains painted onto wooden flats. Even Act 2, whose stage directions contain no overt references to a theatrical setting, appeared to be taking place on a stage, with the men in particular giving a stylised feel to their entrances and exits. Only in Act 4 was this extra level of artifice dispensed with; though the spectre of the stage continued to loom large over Adriana, it was a bare shell, and suddenly (the ludicrous business of the poisoned violets notwithstanding) it was all a lot more immediate and credible.

So what of the much-hyped cast? Gheorghiu may not be an immediately obvious ‘humble handmaid of art’ but she was poised and charming, playing a very youthful version of this heroine who historically has been associated with the ageing diva. Her voice is very much on the small side given the scoring, and for the intimacy of the first and last acts (which frame Adriana’s two celebrated arias) it was often exquisite. But in the confrontation with the Princesse de Bouillon and again in her vengeful Phèdre monologue, Gheorghiu was a kitten when a tigress was needed. I can’t quite picture how she will hold her own when the role of the Princesse transfers to the mighty Olga Borodina later in the run.

Jonas Kaufmann always seemed on the edge of something spectacular, and the contained restraint with which he treats his large, dark-coloured voice would have been massively exciting had it been part of a broad palette. As it was, he seemed to be trying to demonstrate that a hot-blooded verismo hero can be sung with subtlety and intelligence, while also showing off some of his remarkable technical skill (particularly in his legato, and once, memorably, his impeccable ability to diminuendo on a top note). It was very, very impressive — but all too careful, too measured. It seemed a studied effort in avoiding stereotype (or perhaps he was reining himself in to avoid overpowering Gheorghiu) but I longed for him to let rip.

ADRIANA-2442-1841-SCHUSTER&.gif- Michaela Schuster as Princesse De Bouillon and Bonaventura Bottone as Abbé De Chazeuil

Michaela Schuster was a dramatically-committed if somewhat vocally undisciplined Princesse, though it was a misjudgement (probably the director’s) to have her exchange with Adriana in Act 3 played partly for laughs, which diminished the impact. Alone among the major principals, Alessandro Corbelli — as Adriana’s unrequited admirer, Michonnet — was alone in painting a full and touching character portrait.

Much of the interest, and there was plenty, came from the supporting characters. Janis Kelly (Mlle. Jouvenot) and Sarah Castle (Mlle. Dangeville) sparked off one another in Act 1 in an impeccably-judged battle of wills; Bonaventura Bottone (the Abbé de Chazueil) and Maurizio Muraro (the Prince de Bouillon) gave nicely-detailed character portraits in a production which made them quite stylised and more than a little camp.

Mark Elder’s conducting displayed many of the same characteristics as Kaufmann’s singing — lovely, delicate, but for this repertoire far too careful and finely-crafted. On opening night the Gheorghiu and Kaufmann fans were out in force, with every aria met with cheers. But for me, a bit less decorum and a lot more scenery-chewing, both on stage and in the pit, would have served the opera better, and improved a promising performance in a lovingly-crafted production immeasurably.

Ruth Elleson © 2010

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