13 Nov 2011
Adriana Lecouvreur, Carnegie Hall
What could be more appropriate for the Samhain season than a return from near-death?
After the horrors of Jagoš Marković’s production of Le Nozze di Figaro in Belgrade, I was apprehensive lest Nabucco in Serbia’s second city of Novi Sad on 27th October would be transplanted from 6th century BC Babylon to post-Saddam Hussein Tikrit or some bombed-out kibbutz in Beersheba.
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What could be more appropriate for the Samhain season than a return from near-death?
The Opera Orchestra of New York seemed to edge the shadows quite lately, but its return to Carnegie Hall with Cilèa’s fragrant Adriana Lecouvreur was ardently welcomed by something like a sell-out crowd—and why not? The cast, headed by Angela Gheorghiu and Jonas Kaufmann, could hardly have been more up-to-the-moment starry. Adriana is not the obscure sort of fare for which New York’s opera lovers have long treasured the company, being an occasional visitor to the Met as well as to OONY in recent seasons, but no one seemed to mind that. Even better news was the remodeled and repeopled orchestra itself under its handsome new conductor, Alberto Veronesi, producing Cilèa’s masterful and dreamy effects all night up to the ethereal harps that accompany the expiring Adriana to the throne of Melpomene, Muse of Tragedy, on Mount Parnassus. They made one almost eager to hear OONY’s next offering, Wagner’s Rienzi, on January 29th. A maestro of Veronesi’s ability might find elegances in that bombastic work that have previously escaped our attention.
Adriana has its bombastic moments too, but it largely sticks to formal “Verist” manners: continuous song inspired by dialogue and personality; the opera lacks even the audience sop of an act finale of singers in full concerted blast. Adriana is based—it is the last successful opera based—on a script by the indefatigable (but, by 1902, long dead) Eugène Scribe, and like all Scribe historical farragoes, “illustrates” historical problems by placing the feelings of characters, real or fictitious, in the foreground with a claque of intricate skullduggery to surround it and elicit our thrills and chills of sympathy—the technique of “historicality” bequeathed by Scribe to Hollywood. In Adriana, the great actress, in love with a mere officer, learns that he is actually Maurice de Saxe, son of the king of Poland, eventually a marshal of France, and aspirant to the throne of Courland. (Where? Latvia. Same as Latvia. Roughly. But don’t worry; the whole show takes place in Paris.) Maurizio (as he is here) has concealed his identity because, for political reasons (Courland again), he has been courting the passionate wife of the mighty Prince de Bouillon. The Prince never suspects Maurizio is his wife’s lover, but he does suspect the gallant officer of seducing his mistress. That would call for a duel. Add a lot of complications in a darkened room by two desperate women who must not see each other’s faces, and a nastily-wielded speech from Racine, and a bunch of poisoned violets. In life, Maurice and Adrienne had a child, whose great-granddaughter was George Sand, a pal of Scribe’s. And Maurice never did get Courland. Never mind.
Jonas Kaufmann and Angela Gheorghiu [Photo by Stephanie Berger courtesy of Opera Orchestra of New York]
Angela Gheorghiu has a lovely voice but her choice of repertory and the way she uses the instrument have seldom delighted me. On this occasion, while her diva mannerisms no doubt recalled the old days to those who missed them (in either sense), she was for me the least satisfying singer. This may be a case of being too busy studying the notes to bother with the story. Adrienne Lecouvreur was the queen of the Comédie Française because she brought naturalism, or what passed for naturalism in 1730, to a stage frozen in the affectations of “high art.” This is the message of Adriana’s entrance aria, “Io son l’umile ancella,” when, in response to her colleagues’ applause, she assures them she merely inhabits the text as it has been written. Obviously, a great actress does much more than that and a great singer should present the aria as naturalism on her own particular terms—but it must be natural on some terms. Gheorghiu can be many things on stage—pathetic, passionate, sexy, tragic, outraged, outrageous—but she is never natural. That’s all right as long as you sing “Io son l’umile ancella” in a natural fashion, its strophes considered, its raptures and confidences part of a whole (the way Mirella Freni sang it—got that?), but Gheorghiu isolated the phrases into separate Post-It notes on her performing style, never joining them into a whole and demolishing Cilèa’s loveliest melody. Maestro Veronesi followed her devotedly: A star is a star. A friend suggested that he wasn’t conducting the orchestra at all—Gheorghiu was doing it herself with all those tossings and flutterings of her elegant gown.
After a costume change in the interval—divas rule!—Gheorghiu seemed more prepared to sink into the score (which she recently performed in a full staging at Covent Garden). The spoken tirade from Racine’s Phaedra in Act III was, to these ears, her finest vocal moment although one might cavil that it isn’t exactly sung. Her “Poveri fiori,” if once again wayward in tempo, took us closer to the character than anything else all night.
Jonas Kaufmann is not the ideal Latin tenor lover (one reason his Alfredo at the Met was predictably disappointing), but he has such advantages, such a robust, attractive baritonal color to his voice with a seemingly effortless reach to the top, such musicality, such charisma, such devotion to creating his part (which meant here that he had to convince two jealous women of his unflawed fidelity—no trouble for Kaufmann—we all wanted to believe he was in love with us, and it’s easy to believe what you want to believe when it’s sung like that), that I was as starry-eyed as the rest of the house. When I say he lacks “Latinity,” I mean that when he does go for emotional high points, declaring his love or recounting a bold military exploit, though the phrases ring, he does not sound ready to die to take that redoubt, I mean high note. That is the effect of the ideal Verismo tenor. Kaufmann is German: brainless testosterone is just an act for him.
Full cast [Photo by Stephanie Berger courtesy of Opera Orchestra New York]
Anita Rachvelishvili has been singing Carmen to acclaim all over the world, and she did not seem to have renounced the street Gypsy when singing the jealous Principessa here. She seems a very young singer, but the Principessa (unlike so many of her interpreters) is not old; she is a disappointed young woman trapped in a marriage to a noble roué; Maurizio has waked a smoldering volcano. Rachvelishvili has a deep, smoky sound with a vibrato that can be thrillingly suggestive or vaguely spooky and wide of pitch. Her Principessa was full of sass. I wonder what her Dalila might be like?
Ambrogio Maestri, resembling a thick-lipped, sentimental concierge in a romantic farce, brought a far more impressive sound to Michonnet, Adriana’s hopeful manager, than the lovesick fellow usually gets. The smaller roles were cast appealingly, especially Nicola Pamio’s mincing abbé and the four twirling actors who cheer Adriana on her birthday. The orchestra sounded reborn, revivified, ready for anything. I hope that means they will take on many scores they have not played for us before—there’s a lot of terrific bel canto that’s just coming to light. Or if they stick to encoring previous O.O.N.Y. successes, may one suggest Robert le Diable? Nerone? Poliuto? Beatrice di Tenda? I missed them last time through, and they’re certainly worth more than one glance. Or Bizet’s Ivan IV. Or Mercadante’s Virginia. Or Gomes’ Maria Tudor or Il Guarany. Or .