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Recordings

Decca 0440 074 3459 8 DH
18 Jul 2013

Adriana Lecouvreur from Decca

Known principally for its two concert show-pieces for the leading lady, the success of Francesco Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur relies upon finding a soprano willing to take on, and able to pull off, the eponymous role.

Francesco Cilèa: Adriana Lecouvreur

A review by Claire Seymour

Decca 0440 074 3459 8 DH [2DVDs]

$32.99  Click to buy

The opera is commonly considered dramatically weak, its convoluted libretto further befuddled by Cilea’s own last-minute excisions in the interests, he believed, of dramatic flow, but which resulted in some obfuscating gaps. Perhaps this is unfair; the passionate melodrama is told in music of much enchantment and sensuousness, and if it lacks the ‘bite’ of contemporary verismo — the orchestrations ever-delicate and genteel, the harmonies sugary sweet — then maybe we should assess the score’s worth in terms of its effortless Italianate lyricism rather than its gritty realism.

The setting is 1730s Paris, behind the scenes at the Comédie Française. Adriana Lecouvreur, an esteemed actress, is worshipped by the theatre director, Michonnet, but she has eyes only for Maurizio, an officer in the service of the Count of Saxony and to whom Adriana presents a bouquet of violets. Maurizio’s own political ambitions make him prey to amorous temptations, and he becomes entangled in a complicated web of romantic intrigue and subterfuge, involving the Prince and Princesse de Bouillon, and the Prince’s mistress, Duclos — who is also Adriana’s thespian rival. A dropped bracelet alerts Adriana’s suspicions that Maurizio is dallying elsewhere and, at a palace party, a confrontation ensues between actress and princess, tender flowers and glittering trinkets brandished as evidence of betrayal. To distract attention from her own misdemeanours, the princess suggests that Adriana should recite a monologue. Cunningly selecting a passage from Racine’s Phèdre, in which the heroine denounces sinners and adulterous women, Adriana’s performance is targeted at the enraged princess, who determines upon revenge.

Things move on apace: Adriana retires from the stage, Maurizio is thrown into jail and his loyal admirer pawns her jewellery to pay off his debts, only for Michonnet to retrieve her treasures, presenting them to her at a company party to celebrate her birthday. A casket also arrives, labelled ‘from Maurizio’ and bearing a wilted bouquet which Adriana interprets as a symbol of their faded passion. Seizing the pitiful buds, she kisses them and flings them into the fire; only for Maurizio, summoned by Michonnet, to make a flamboyant entrance, begging Adriana to forgive and marry him. As she joyfully accepts, a pallor overcomes her; infected by the poison-laced violets which had been sent by the vengeful princess, she dies in Maurizio’s arms.

Death-by-wilted-violet hardly rivals the death-leaps from the battlements of other verismo tragedies. The dramatic frame will not bear any directorial conceptualising and in this production, seen at the Royal Opera House in 2010 (filmed at performances on 22 November and 4 December), David McVicar sensibly adopts a traditional approach, one which does allow for a little ironic self-referencing and eye-brow raising at the natural of theatrical artifice. The occasionally tongue-in-cheek approach is fitting for an opera about theatre which presents two performances-within-the-performance which, as convention demands, reflect the concerns of the main plot. In Act 1, mirroring history, the actors are to present a play by Jean-François Regnard, Les Folies amoureuses, while in Act 3, the ballet which entertains the palace guests relates the myth of The Judgement of Paris, encouraging them, and us, to judge Maurizio’s infidelities — though his self-serving indulgences at times lead us to question whether he’s worth all the trouble.

Charles Edwards’ beautiful and historically accurate set takes us to the heart of the theatre, and presents us with the stage the Comédie Française viewed from behind the scenes. Similarly, McVicar’s characteristically adept management of the secondary characters and chorus gives us a lively sense of a thespian world, its egos and posturing, gossip and rivalries, passionate jealousies and envious intrigues. Sets, properties and costumes (Brigitte Reifenstuel) are detailed and lavish (presumably the costs were shared by the multiple collaborators, the Gran Teatro del Liceu, Barcelona, the San Francisco Opera, and the Opéra Garnier, Paris); but, even in the visual design, with its abundant period minutiae — fans, wine glasses, mirrors, rapiers — there is a debt to ‘artifice’: the curtains, for example, are not luxurious velvet but painted onto wooden back-flats. Movements are stylised and showy; singers playing actors with light-hearted knowingness.

Only in Act 4 does the stage become more sparse as Adriana retreats from the limelight, convinced that Maurizio has abandoned her, and resigned to a simpler life away from the theatrical excesses of the stage.

It might seem natural to start with our thespian heroine and her romancing beloved. But, for me the stand-out performance on this disc is that of Alessandro Corbelli, as Adriana’s loyal devotee, Michonnet; his love unrequited, Corbelli’s Michonnet is a portrait of steadfast allegiance and constancy in a world of emotional fickleness and excess. His stuttering attempts in Act 1 to ask for Adriana’s hand in marriage are touchingly hesitant and naively hopefully; and, during Michonnet’s account of her performance — unseen and unheard by us, as offstage and onstage prove interchangeable — in Racine’s Bajazet, in a declamatory, sparingly accompanied aria, ‘Ecco il monologo’, Corbelli’s narration is full of intelligent sentiment. Convincingly, he seems to retain both an awareness and acceptance of his own aging and romantic hope; the latter blossoming in Act 4, as he reprises his ‘proposal melody’ to a sleeping Adriana, this time a model of pure, eloquent love.

The eponymous starlet is performed by a modern-day ‘diva’, Angela Gheorghiu, who was presumably attracted by both the dramatic character of the role and its fairly low tessitura, as well as the opening and closing show-stopper numbers. Not surprisingly she is a most effective prima donna; another fitting layer of meta-theatre, as the principal roles and several of the lesser figures in Scribe’s and Legouvé’s libretto were based on real-life figures: Adrienne Lecouvreur (1692-1730) was the most famous actress of her era, an advocate for a more naturalistic style of expression and the first of her profession to be welcomed into polite society.

In Adriana’s first celebrated aria, ‘Io son l'umile ancella’, she sings of her fidelity to her art — she is the ‘humble servant of creative genius’; yet, I found Gheorghiu’s rendition lacking in dramatic force and sincerity. Though clean, generally accurate and not unpleasant in tone, there is little imaginative, responsive phrasing, few embellishments, the diction is a bit woolly and the voice lacks weight and centre — as if Adriana is going through the motions rather than truly living the role, as she professes. There are flashes of dramatic presence but, in the fiery Act 3 confrontation with the Princesse de Bouillon, Gheorghiu is out-scorned by Olga Borodina’s viperous onslaught, and though theatrically aggrieved, her Phèdre monologue lacks real declamatory energy and rancour.

Gheorghiu finds greater range and depth at the start of Act 4 when, among the bare theatre wings, simply but charmingly dressed, she her sadness and acquiescence to the patient Michonnet. But, later in the Act, in ‘Poveri Fiori’ — in which Adriana expresses sorrow at the fate of the lifeless flower which symbolises her own languished hopes of love — Gheorghiu seems emotionally indifferent, the phrases discontinuous, the timbre uneven and the consonants inaudible.

In contrast, Jonas Kaufmann’s Maurizio is every inch the ardent, romantic hero. His resonant dark timbre is employed throughout to elegant effect; in his Act 1 aria, ‘La dolcissima effigie’, the subtle dynamics and smooth lyricism suggests the sincerity of his professed love for Adriana, and if overall the tone is a little lacking in variety then Kaufmann is unfailingly technically assured.

Kaufmann seems more energised in his exchanges scenes with Olga Borodina’s Princesse than when courting the more passive Adriana. Hackles raised, attired in gleaming black like a vengeful Queen of the Night, at the start of Act 2 (‘Acerba vollutà, dolce tortura’) Borodina uses her impressive range to convey all the Princesse’s fury and fears, making a powerful impact at both the top and, especially the dark bottom. Such is the force of her emotions, and the extent of her political influence, that, arriving in her boudoir, Maurizio is impelled to bestow upon her the violets so recently imparted to him by Adriana.

Among the supporting roles there is much lively, detailed characterisation, with the singers interacting engagingly and often with shrewd humour. Company members of the Comédie Française, Mademoiselle Jouvenot (Janis Kelly) and Mademoiselle Dangeville (Sarah Castle) enjoy some animated competitive tiffs; as the Prince, an authoritative, resounding Maurizio Muraro reveals a sure sense of period gesture and comic timing, well-aided in his scheming by the rather camp Abbé de Chazueil (Bonaventura Bottone) — the latter not averse to some gentle flirtatious amusements of his own. The appropriately strong ‘company’ ambience keeps things moving along deftly.

Mark Elder coaxes a finely-drawn reading of the score from the players of the ROH orchestra, crafting the phrases with a gentle sensibility. The Act 3 ballet is exquisitely delicate. Occasionally one might long for a bit more raw passion: it’s all rather genteel and pretty, with none of the unrestrained, excessive outpourings, even vulgarity, which characterise the more hot-blooded verismo works.

Included in the DVD package is a 23-minute bonus feature, ‘All about Adriana’, in which the principals, director, designer and conductor discuss the production — which, it appears, was instigated and driven by Gheorghiu herself.

Overall, McVicar tells a convoluted story in a straightforward and direct way, making the most of the musical strengths of the score and overcoming its dramatic weaknesses.

Claire Seymour


Adriana Lecouveur, Angela Gheorghiu; Maurizio, Jonas Kaufmann; Princesse de Bouillon, Olga Borodina; Michonnet, Alessandro Corbelli; Quinault, David Soar; Poisson, Iain Paton; Mademoiselle Jouvenot, Janis Kelly; Mademoiselle Dangeville, Sarah Castle; Prince de Bouillon, Maurizio Muraro; Abbé de Chazeuil, Bonaventura Bottone; Mademoiselle Duclos, Barbara Rhodes; Director, David McVicar; Conductor, Mark Elder; Designer, Charles Edwards; Lighting Designer, Adam Silvermann; Costume Designer, Brigitte Reiffensteul; Choreographer, Andrew George; Orchestra and Chorus of the Royal Opera House; TV Director and Producer, François Roussillon; Executive Producer, Toni Hajal; Sound Supervisor, Jean Chatauret

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