Adriana Lecouvreur from Decca

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 ComÈdie FranÁaise.
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 PhËdre, 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-FranÁois Regnard, Les Folies
, 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 ComÈdie FranÁaise
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 OpÈra 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 LegouvÈ’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 PhËdre 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 vollut‡, 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

Among the supporting roles there is much lively, detailed characterisation,
with the singers interacting engagingly and often with shrewd humour. Company
members of the ComÈdie FranÁaise, 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 AbbÈ 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

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;
AbbÈ 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, FranÁois Roussillon; Executive Producer, Toni Hajal;
Sound Supervisor, Jean Chatauret

image_description=Decca 0440 074 3459 8 DH
product_title=Francesco CilËa: Adriana Lecouvreur
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id=Decca 0440 074 3459 8 DH [2DVDs]