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SEEN AND HEARD UK OPERA REVIEW
Soloists, chorus and orchestra of The Royal Opera. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. 18.11.2010 (JPr)
Production Picture (Act III) © Catherine Ashmore
Well, where to begin? First there is the matter of ‘Promptergate’ that seems not to have been fully debated in the early reviews I saw before writing this. I am used to large prompt boxes across Europe where it is often used to hide the fact that the singers may not have complete command of what they are singing but in this country they have virtually been ‘outlawed’ by our leading opera companies for probably most of the last two decades, if not more. Yet entering the auditorium there one was clear as day and seemingly punctuated by a modestly sized bust of Molière that stood on top of it. Then there were the fans of the two leading principal singers, Angela Gheorghiu and Jonas Kaufmann, who interrupted the performance to applaud their favourites every time they sang something of any length, despite the fact both gave flawed performances. Finally, there is the usually controversial David McVicar who provided a vehicle for his stars both occasionally cluttered and so lacking in his usual controversy that his ‘selling out’ to his Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, Vienna State Opera, San Francisco Opera and L’Opéra National de Paris co-production paymasters mirrored the usually outrageous Richard Jones’s uninspired, traditional, recent Die Meistersinger for Welsh National Opera. This Adriana Lecouvreur was so naturalistic that David McVicar, if he continues in this vein, would appear to be the natural successor to Jonathan Miller.
Thankfully, production costs have been shared since it is unlikely it will be revived very soon at Covent Garden since it will be impossible to sell the tickets unless a diva of the magnitude of Angela Gheorghiu can be persuaded to give it a go. Witness the fact that, as it is at present, even Jonas Kaufmann faces the prospect of singing to a number of empty seats when Ángeles Blancas Gulín sings the title role on the nights Ms Gheorghiu takes off during this run.
In view of the lack of any sense of personal chemistry between Kaufmann and Gheorghiu then perhaps concert performances might have turned a fitfully engaging - but overlong - evening into something memorable. Whose fault was it? Perhaps the composer, Cilea, is responsible because the opera is always reminding you of something else. I haven’t had the time to research whether Francesco Cilea was a Wagnerian but there are enough hints of music from the Ring in particular - when the music is not supporting the voices - to suggest he was. When Cilea writes for his soloists he never is content to use a melody, however evocative it may be, just the once but he repeats it again and again. Not only does the music have its intrinsic longueurs but we were treated to a full Act III Judgement of Paris ballet with Andrew George’s camp and mannered quasi-eighteenth century choreography. The judicious use of scissors at this point in the score would have made for a shorter, and therefore, tighter evening.
The Act I backstage antics at the Comédie Française come from Pagliacci by Cilea’s Verismo compatriot, Leoncavallo. There is even a hint of Tonio from this opera in the character of Michonnet, the stage manager, who is devoted to his ‘diva’. Adriana Lecouvreur, was a real historical figure and a favourite of Voltaire, she had a turbulent love-life and a suitably mysterious death and is portrayed in the opera with Tosca-like tantrums, that character’s jealously, as well as, her ideals of living for love and her art. Her rivalry with the Princesse de Bouillon for the affections of Maurizio, Count of Saxony, is a pastiche of the great Amneris/Aida ‘cat fight’ over Radames, even to the point of Adriana exposing her affections by swooning when hearing from her of his supposed death. Adriana’s disgrace, subsequent penury, death and transfiguration comes straight out of Traviata – even though her death here is not from consumption but from poisoned violets sent by the Princesse, would you believe?
Well, what does McVicar do with this? He shows us the artifice of the theatre and those who work in it. Most are ‘big fish in a small pond’ but are nobodies once the lights have dimmed and the curtains are closed. Apart from the cognoscenti who would recognise Kaufmann or Gheorghiu in the unlikely event they were on a bus? Angela Gheorghiu even admits in a recent interview this is why she keeps flying from opera house to house when she says ‘I want to have the same feeling in my life as I do on stage and that is not often the case. Life is sad compared with opera.’ Charles Edwards’s sets and Brigitte Reiffensteul’s costumes are exquisitely detailed throughout the evening and for Act I we are backstage in a theatre loosely based on the splendidly ornate Rococo Margrave’s Opera House in Bayreuth and Michonnet gives his commentary from the wings as ‘his’ Adriana performs in Racine's Bajazet in the background. The set turns around and we see it from the front in Act II as it represents a villa by the Seine; in Act III we are part of the audience and for Act IV we are backstage again with everything as derelict as the set from the last Covent Garden production in 1906 might appear now more than a century later.
Maurizio, Count of Saxony, is an unsympathetic part and his character will woo anyone who will be of advantage to him. The role was first sung by Enrico Caruso who would have undoubtedly had just the right Italianate timbre Jonas Kaufmann’s tenor voice now lacks. For me his career is at a crossroads; he was so interesting as Walther at the Edinburgh Festival, unforgettable as Don José at Covent Garden, yet disappointing recently at Bayreuth as Lohengrin. Perhaps he is buying into all the hype that he is the opera world’s successor to Domingo? There are wonderfully exciting top notes and some immaculate phrasing but there is also an occluded baritonal quality to the voice, a tendency to scoop up to and croon the quieter notes, and his diction was not that great either. It just was not the right sound for this opera. Hopefully his forthcoming role debut as Siegmund may show more clearly what the future holds for this German tenor.
Angela Gheorghiu began this work nervously as she did the Traviata I saw her in recently. Perhaps she does not warm up enough? Clearly the showpiece aria about her being a servant to her dramatic art (Io son l’umile ancella) was very tentative and showed vocal insecurity and her Act IV aria seemed to go awry at the end. In between she had gained confidence and her voice showed the consummate artistry we expect from her. However all the emoting and doomed-heroine shtick is becoming a little tiresome as it appears the same regardless of the direction Gheorghiu must be given.
The rest of the cast aren’t give much opportunity to shine but Alessandro Corbelli, who is generally cast as the buffo fool, engendered tremendous sympathy as Michonnet, a father-figure to Adriana, but someone who wants to be more than that to her. Michaela Schuster brought the jealous, possessive Princess to vivid life and made a potent rival to Adriana. Maurizio Muraro sang with a nice sense of gravitas as the Prince, whilst the veteran Bonaventura Bottone was wonderfully foppish and unctuous as his servant the Abbé.
Probably there as a ‘cool hand on the tiller’ in the pit was Sir Mark Elder who brought out some ravishing sounds from the orchestra without unleashing the red-hot passion that could be there if the baton passed to a conductor not willing to treat the music so seriously or indulge his singers so much.
It was Act IV that had the most tension despite my reservation about Gheorghiu’s histrionics. There was the increasing possibility that there might be some of McVicar’s famed nudity after all as Adriana’s nightgown began to slip dangerously off her shoulders such that a ‘wardrobe malfunction’ seemed imminent. She declares herself to be Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy, relives her life on the stage and expires in Maurizio’s arms. In a genuine coup de théâtre McVicar has the motley troupe of actors walk to the front of ‘their’ stage to pay homage to the passing of the diva: ‘The play’s the thing’ and all that!