Bay Area Reporter, 3 May 2012
by Tim Pfaff
Adriana without apology
The Royal Opera Covent Garden's splendid new production of Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur last year came as a refreshing change of pace. For once a new opera production set in a theater was actually about an opera set – at least in significant part – in a theater.

Who'd have thought? In recent years, "all the world's a stage" seemed to have been not so much an observation but a mandate for opera directors. Then along came David McVicar with the idea of letting poor, neglected little Adriana be. It turns out that Cilea's tender yet deceptively affecting tale of a temperamental star actress from the 18th-century Comedie-Francaise who wins and loses and wins and loses a battle for a man whose heart she has, only to die in a bit of tragic treachery that cross-breeds Romeo and Juliet with La Traviata, doesn't need rescuing, just proper attention. McVicar's cauterizingly sane production – calling it literal or traditional overlooks how fresh and affecting it is – gives us the action pretty much as librettist Arturo Colautti wrote it, in and in front of a strikingly handsome proscenium theater (designs by Charles Edwards).

Although this production doesn't have even a smidgeon of that made-for-DVD feel, Decca's new 2-DVD release of it (culled from live performances on Nov. 22 and Dec. 4, 2010) proves to be just the kind of opera on DVD you want – one that invites you to watch it again and not just to puzzle out the director's concept.

Covent Garden had any number of reasons for putting on the dog with its new Adriana, not the least of them being that it was the company's first production of the work in more than a century. (And the opera itself was new in 1902.) SF Opera lovers with long memories will gratefully remember its fine production in 1977 with Renata Scotto, revived in 1985 with Mirella Freni, divas of the type Adriana requires, and whose like we all too rarely see anymore.

This is hardly the forum to discuss a work's merit, but the relative neglect of Adriana in our lifetimes is, as this virtually faultless realization of it demonstrates, as incomprehensible as it is undeserved. Cilea has acquired the reputation of writing more slender scores in the verismo style we associate with the likes of the gutsier Mascagni, Leoncavallo, and, pre-eminently, Puccini. But as Mark Elder's superb conducting of the ace Covent Garden Orchestra and a uniformly fine bank of singers, from the principals down to the last chorister, makes abundantly clear, this is not Puccini lite.

You do hear more than whiffs of Puccini in Cilea's score, but no more than you would expect of any composer working at the top of his form in the language of his day. But for that matter – say, at the opening of Act IV, before the first voice sounds – there's more than a hint of Wagner's Rheingold.

For most of its life, Adriana has been thought of as the receptacle for two fine arias – Adriana's "Io son l'umile ancella" and "Poveri fiori" – and, if there's a Caruso around (as there was at the premiere), perhaps another, the tenor's "La dolcissima effigie." This performance lays that idea to rest as you hear how the opera, if not "through-composed" a la Wagner, is thoroughly composed and exceptionally well made.

Another thing you notice is how many intricate little ensemble episodes there are – because here they're so perfectly executed, alert, and vital. There's not a slack moment in this production.

There's nothing apologetic about Covent Garden's Adriana, but no clearer sign of how seriously they took the enterprise than the luxury cast. The opera does seem to have caught the attention of sopranos at the peaks of their careers, even looking at the downslopes, and Angela Gheorghiu, at whose "request" this production was made, is pretty well ideal. It's quite possible that no less "humble servant of art" treads the opera boards these days, but this soprano's in full service of this role and nails it.

Jonas Kaufmann, who sang an achingly beautiful "La dolcissima effigie" on his recent Verismo CD, is even more persuasive with it live and in context. Still, the wonder of his Maurizio is its alertness to every moment of the part, sung or not, and the simply amazing degree to which he shades it without ever seeming to fuss. Here is audible proof that Kaufmann is the greatest Maurizio since Caruso. Olga Borodina's Princesse de Bouillon is as sumptuous and formidable, and she makes the villainess chillingly credible.

But in all that vocal glory, you won't miss Alessandro Corbelli's beautifully realized Michonnet, whose unrequited yet undying love for Adriana increasingly feels like our own. This production of the century could easily land the opera itself right back in its rightful place in the repertoire.

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