Gheorghiu, Borodina; Kaufmann, Corbelli; Royal Opera Chorus, Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Elder. Production: McVicar. Decca B0016696-09 (2 DVDs) or B0016754-59 (Blu-ray), 150 mins. (opera), 23 mins. (bonus), subtitled
Snoot if you must, but it's no accident that Adriana Lecouvreur still holds the stage. Cilèa's score may not be "great music" or possess boundless depth, but the man knew how to write an effective opera filled with dramatic tension and engaging melody. (And yes, there are far more than just two big tunes in the opera; at least a dozen key motifs recur, develop and propel the action.) It's when Adriana is burdened with indifferent singers or a lackluster conductor that it suffers. Fortunately, that is not the case here; this 2010 David McVicar production from Covent Garden, featuring a starry cast and sensitive conducting by Mark Elder, makes the best possible case for this frequently maligned opera.
Certainly any Adriana stands or falls on its prima donna, like so many other giovane scuola vehicles, including Giordano's Fedora, Alfano's Risurrezione and just about every opera Puccini ever wrote. The role of the great French tragedienne is one Angela Gheorghiu was born to play. (Insert your choice of snarky diva remark here.) Although she does not always have the most reliable lower register, every other weapon in the verismo arsenal is at her disposal — vibrant temperament, sharp dramatic instincts, clear diction and throbbing, urgent tone that can be hardened to reflect the emotions of the moment. Adriana, of course, also requires lightness and pure vocal beauty for her two major arias, which Gheorghiu has in abundance. And that great test of a diva's declamatory skill, the Phèdre monologue in Act III, is thrilling here.
Gheorghiu is partnered by three singers who also qualify as true stage animals. Jonas Kaufmann is everything one could want as Maurizio: dashingly virile of presence and timbre, he tirelessly pours out passionate, molten sound. He and Gheorghiu have wonderful chemistry in their love scenes. Alessandro Corbelli, a singing actor who rarely lets the audience down, is subtle and touching in the ungrateful role of Adriana's lovelorn confidant Michonnet. As the Princesse de Bouillon, Olga Borodina is one scary pit bull, commanding the stage with her imposing presence and cannonball voice. Her fiery confrontations with Gheorghiu in Acts II and III are more than evenly matched.
David McVicar's production maintains the element of theater throughout: a proscenium arch, situated upstage, is well integrated into Charles Edwards's evocative set for each act. One has the sense of a unit production with none of the budgetary economies that often implies. There is plenty of appropriate lavishness on view here, not only in the sets but in Brigitte Reiffenstuel's beautiful eighteenth-century costumes. The entire production is a cohesive whole to which McVicar adds some insightful flourishes, such as Adriana's fellow actors appearing as a ghostly tableau in the opera's final moments, saluting their deceased colleague.
The accompanying booklet includes an informative essay on the musical structure and performance history of Adriana. In a bonus documentary (really just a series of intercut talking-head interviews), Gheorghiu, Kaufmann, McVicar, Edwards and Elder speak out in wholehearted support of this opera, which until this production (suggested by Gheorghiu) had not been staged at Covent Garden since 1906. Elder zeroes in on one of the main reasons Adriana remains a critical scapegoat today. "This opera has charm," he says ruefully, "and charm is no longer fashionable, is it?"
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