Musicweb International, June 2012
Simon Thompson
Adriana Lecouvreur - RECORDING OF THE MONTH
Like all Cilea’s works, Adriana Lecouvreur exists only on the fringes of the operatic repertoire. Dramatically speaking it’s a load of old hokum, but it is chock-full of tunes to die for. Covent Garden’s only previous production had been in 1906, but in 2010 they brought in a new one from David McVicar and showered it with stars. Having done the rounds in cinemas, the results now arrive on DVD. They’re worth a wait of 104 years.

I was lucky enough to be in the theatre on the night this production was filmed. The sense of anticipation in the audience was febrile and in the end it turned out to be a red-letter night in the Royal Opera’s recent history. How could it fail to be when they pulled out the stops to procure possibly the finest lyric soprano and tenor in the world today? Unless you have a decent Adriana there is no point in even starting with this piece, and Angela Gheorghiu is an inspired piece of casting for the heroine. Apparently, mounting the piece at Covent Garden was her idea, and she personally requested McVicar as the director. Every inch the diva in real life, she loves playing the fragile, wounded heroine, the actress who wowed the Comédie Française with her stage presence but was unlucky in real life. If anything, this role suits Gheorghiu even better than that of Tosca, the other great diva of the stage. While her Tosca can sometimes be self-conscious or held back, she loves ascending the heights for Adriana. The voice is in fantastic shape here too: rich and bloomy with a pearly edge that really sets it off. She sounds imperious yet humble in her first act aria, Io son l’umile ancella, commanding the stage with supreme confidence lifting every phrase and achieving a gorgeous quality of luxury in her top notes. Poveri fiori in the final act is shot through with vulnerability and loss without losing the beauty of tone. Throughout she acts most convincingly - not something you’ll hear said of her very often! - especially in her Act 3 monologue where she denounces the Princess, her rival.

Next to her is the most thrilling tenor we have today, Jonas Kaufmann. There is an excitement about his voice and stage presence that is infectious, and it’s hard not to get swept up in the experience of watching him. His first entry in Act 1 is exhilarating as he strides onto the stage singing the heroine’s name, and then goes into a thrilling account of La dolcissima effighe. Every phrase is endowed phrase with dark beauty. He does the music the great honour of taking it seriously! Kaufmann’s voice has a low-lying, baritonal quality that gives everything he sings an extra element of sensuousness, a real audio treat for the listener. He is as capable of sounding thrilling (Il russo Mencikoff) as he is of sounding jaded and weary (L’anima ha stanca). The real highlights of the set are the pair’s duets. The lovely Act 4 duet where Maurizio proposes marriage is gently communicative, almost apologetic, while their Act 2 duet catches fire in a way that lifted me out of my seat in the theatre and felt just as good on the screen. Listen, by the way, to the astonishing diminuendo that Kaufmann achieves on the final note of Act 4: pure class.

As the Princess, Olga Borodina chews up the scenery, singing with a voice so commanding that it takes you aback when you first hear her. She is a thrilling villainess, inhabiting every nasty bone of this character but so exciting to watch and listen to that she never loses the audience’s interest. In total contrast is the hugely sympathetic Michonnet of Alessandro Corbelli, warm and humane, singing with wounded beauty throughout and evoking a marvellous sense of quiet loss in his unreturned love for Adriana. The lesser roles are all well taken and the actors in the Comédie Française have a crackling sense of spontaneity to their ensembles.

McVicar’s production is another treat, this time for the eyes, and sets the production squarely in its period (early 18th century France) but with the clever twist of placing a replica wooden theatre at the heart of the stage action. We see the theatre rotated at various angles in each scene: in the third act we see the proscenium front-on and the stage makes a perfect venue for the ballet at the prince’s party. Angled slightly, it forms the entrance for the Act 2 shenanigans at the house of La Duclos. Viewed from the side it provides the backstage area of the Comédie Française, allowing us to see Adriana as she delivers her monologue. It’s very effectively used in the final scene where we see it from behind, stripped bare to reflect the forlorn and loveless state of Adriana’s life. As she dies her former colleagues draw near on the stage to take their farewell of her. As a motif it unifies the action brilliantly, as well as forming some meta-theatrical comment on the characters’ grasp of the relationship between real life and make-believe. The costume designs are outstandingly well observed and sumptuously beautiful. The whiff of greasepaint hangs over the whole event. We also get a delectable ballet for the Judgement of Paris in the third act.

The orchestra play brilliantly and the balance against the singers is captured in excellent surround sound. Mark Elder’s conducting is clear and precise, moulding each phrase with love, be it the jollity of the opening scene or, most effectively, the anaemic prelude to Act 4, which feels only a few steps away from that of La Traviata. The bonus feature, by the way, is of very high quality, featuring highly informative interviews with Gheorghiu, Kaufmann, Elder and McVicar, as well as designer Charles Edwards. It gives lots of insights into the process behind putting the production together.

All told, then, this set is an absolute winner. It even supersedes Levine’s Sony CDs as an overall first choice for this opera in any format. It’s brilliantly sung and acted, and it looks fantastic too. I loved it, not only because it brought back memories of a great evening, but because it shows off two stars at the peak of their form. It will provide any open-minded listener with 2½ hours of unalloyed operatic pleasure. Go ahead and treat yourself.

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