Finally, an opera all too long disdained by high-minded folks who want us to suffer through “Wozzeck” one more time, has returned exactly where it should be: center stage at the Royal Opera in London.
With its great arias and extravagant plot culminating in death by violets, “Adriana Lecouvreur” is the perfect work for stars like Angela Gheorghiu and Jonas Kaufmann, who thrilled the packed house as a fabled 18th-century actress and her martial cavalier, Maurizio.
As the opera opens backstage at the Comedie-Francaise, she enters floating with an aria about her humility and devotion to art as admirers cluck in appreciation. Maurizio’s life is, however, complicated by a volatile princess who makes cow eyes at him.
Director David McVicar’s trump card is to place all the action in a theater. This is Adriana’s home territory, of course. It also makes perfect sense of the plot’s more melodramatic MacGuffins, which include misdirected letters, mistaken identities and mislaid jewels. He keeps the complicated plotting as clear as can be, and works hard at detailed characterization.
God on a Cloud
Designer Charles Edwards recreates a Baroque theater, complete with flywheels, capstans, traps, sliding wings, rolling gauzes and even a descending Mercury on a cloud machine, which is strikingly beautiful. When it revolves, it takes the breath away.
It’s not just a working stage-within-a-stage, either: When the princess appears in the second act, her apartment is half behind the footlights and half in front. It’s a clever metaphor for the unreal view she has of her relationship with Maurizio.
With Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s panniered silken frocks, including a tightly corseted corn-yellow riding outfit (plus whip) for Adriana in Act 2, the whole gorgeous operation looks like a Watteau painting come to life.
The role of Adriana, in its infrequent showings, is usually given to a soprano with a bit of beef in her voice. This was one of the favored roles a half century ago of the sainted Renata Tebaldi.
Gheorghiu makes a perfectly convincing case for it to be given to a lighter lyric singer. Her floating high pianissimi are exquisite, and her general delicacy makes for a charming and fragile performance. Her account of the sad Act 4 aria “Poveri fiori” (“Poor flowers”) is a showstopper.
Kaufmann brings tremendous virility, both vocally and dramatically, to Maurizio. His dark middle register and high ringing sobs are ideal for the character’s conflicted nature and passionate outbursts. Michaela Schuster, a meaty-voiced mezzo, is great, too, as the princess, and gives a fine performance of her roof-raising big number “Acerba volutta” (“Bitter pleasure”).
The only fly in the glittering ointment is the restrained conducting of Mark Elder.
“Adriana” is the kind of piece that needs fevered emotionalism and even a hint of well-placed vulgarity in the pit from time to time.
Even so, given the tremendous cast and production, it’s time to welcome “Adriana” back into the fold.
“Adriana Lecouvreur” is in repertory at the Royal Opera House, London, through Dec. 10. Some later performances have Angeles Blancas Gulin as Adriana and Olga Borodina as the princess.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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