For an opera not seen at Covent Garden for over a century, Adriana Lecouvreur inspires a remarkable feeling of déjà vu. In his most famous opera, Francesco Cilea plays a fascinating but dangerous game in producing a work so layered with what John Snelson, in his programme essay, describes as 'Russian-doll theatrical reflexivity'. The line between the various performances—those we in the audience watch and those witnessed by the audience of cast members on stage—is constantly blurred. Meanwhile, the opera's reputation as a diva-vehicle means that the distinction between the star prima donna, the character she plays (the real-life actress Adriana) and the characters Adriana plays in turn is all rather complex. Where, one asks, is the Adriana we are to sympathise with? Who is she?
David McVicar's new production plays things straight, but, with evocative designs by Charles Edwards, subtly emphasises the theatricality at every turn. There's not one scene where either the backstage of the Comédie Francaise (Adriana's stamping ground) or a trompe l'oeil is not visible. The mechanics of theatrical representation are there for all to see. Costumed stage hands are seen between the Acts, while a bust of Molière sits downstage in Act One, ostentatiously removed before the curtain rises on Act Two.
On the level of Cilea's score, however, the mechanics can seem rather obvious too—not so much a conscious strategy, in this case, one suspects. He produces some wonderfully evocative melodies, but their reccurrences are predictable, calculated and rather too frequent. Adriana and Maurizio's act-one duet, for example, is a procession of carefully prepared top notes, orchestral effusions and snatched embraces. Act Three has something of Pagliacci about it, but there's little room for anything visceral under the powdered wigs, frocks and rococo trimmings. Long before the arrival of the poisoned violets in Act Four, Adriana already seems condemned to a consumptive demise by both the Traviata-like violin solos and Violetta's trademark white night-gown. On the other hand, the plot, overburdened with contrived devices, leaves little space for the audience to identify with the central couple, so that the protracted death-scene overstays its welcome.
Adriana Lecouvreur, then, might be described as a work of consummate theatricality but little drama. That is perhaps why it has survived primarily as a vehicle for divas, and here the Royal Opera has not disappointed in its casting. With a highly vocal band of supporters in attendence, Angela Gheorghiu certainly exudes star quality. There was a great deal to enjoy in her singing—the voice too small but smooth and velvety as ever—and much of her acting, too. She provided yet another layer to the Russian doll, however, in an assumption that was very clearly 'performed'. Her 'Io son l'umile ancella' traced a coolly controlled trajectory to its climax with little hint of passion. Throughout, her Adriana is carefully gauged and magnificently executed in its way, but it is characterised by primarily by delicious artifice. This is not entirely inappropriate, and she delivers her lines expertly in the Phaedre extract that closes Act Three and calls on an unrivalled histrionic repertoire in Act Four, but she remains elusive as an object of the audience's affections.
Adriana's pivotal confrontation with her rival, the Princesse de Bouillon, gives little hint of the boiling passions that should drive it. As the Princesse herself, Michaela Schuster is on fine form, a few clunky register shifts notwithstanding, but can do little with the two-dimensional character, whose introduction at the start of Act Two is insufficiently prepared. The undoubted star of the show, however, is Jonas Kaufmann as the heart-throb Maurizio. His sweeping entrance in Act One, dashing and handsome, was exciting and strangely relaxing by turns: we know we're in safe hands and can sit back and enjoy the darkly baritonal strains of his remarkable voice. And the rare mixture of intelligence, vocal power and refinement mean there's indeed a great deal to enjoy, but once again it all seems a little detached from the action, with some of the vocalism sounding calculated when the music calls for no-holds-barred heroics. McVicar's direction dictates much canoodling and kissing with Gheoghiu, but at no stage does one believe in their love, or, it has to be said, particularly care about it.
Among the other roles, Alessandro Corbelli provides a predicably expert and sympathetic Michonnet, the stage manager with an unrequited crush on Adriana. He was taxed in the higher tessitura, though, and I couldn't help wishing his love would turn to jealousy, à la Tonio in Pagliacci, to spice up the verismo stew a little. Veteran Bonaventure Bottone was an excellent Abbé de Chazeuil, while Maurizio Muraro impressed as the Prince de Bouillon. As the ensemble of the Comédie, Janis Kelly, Sarah Castle, Iain Paton, and David Soar were outstanding.
Mark Elder, meanwhile, did everything possible to persuade us of the consummate craftsmanship of Cilea's score in the subtly perfumed and lovingly shaped playing of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Nevertheless, like the evening as a whole, it evoked warm admiration rather than deep affection. One is left feeling that there's too much in the work to confine it, like Adriana's dead violets, to the fire, but similarly it's difficult to imagine a performance truly bringing it back to life, being anything more than an act of preservation. Nevertheless, on those terms, in an evening that oozes quality, the Royal Opera has certainly delivered.
By Hugo Shirley
Photos © The Royal Opera/Catherine Ashmore