Constructed around a largely fictitious episode in the short life of a popular eighteenth-century French actress, Francesco Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, first performed in 1902, has long hovered at the margins of the mainstream repertoire – neither fully in nor completely out. It has been staged a little more frequently in recent years, but is still hardly what you would call a staple. The reasons are pretty straightforward. Based on a play written almost half a century earlier by Eugène Scribe, Arturo Colautti’s libretto delivers a plot that is lightweight, confusing and – in its dénouement – verging on the risible. Moreover, the work’s reputation rests on no more than approximately twenty-five minutes of very fine music: five glorious arias, two rapturous duets and one melodramatic recitation. Together, these eight set pieces transcend the rest of Cilea’s score, in which much of the writing for the voices is pedestrian (although there are a number of lovely moments for the orchestra, in which the influence of Puccini is clearly audible). Moreover, it is hard to know whether he had an over-indulgent fondness for his own best tunes or simply possessed a ham-fisted approach to thematic development. Either way, by the end of a performance, it is hard to avoid the feeling that certain melodies have been shoved down one’s throat somewhat.
All this is offered not for the purpose of damning the opera, but to emphasise that any performance of it is inevitably wholly dependent for its success on the excellence of the principal singers, especially the soprano and tenor. Adriana is a verismo confection painted in gaudy primary colours, which requires outstanding vocalism across the board if its strengths are to be maximised and its inadequacies pushed into the background of the audience’s consciousness. Considering how much there is to like in this production, it gives no pleasure to write that, in this area, those responsible for casting at Holland Park have dropped the ball quite badly – but more about that later.
Directed by Martin-Lloyd Evans and designed by Jamie Vartan, the action is relocated from the Comédie-Française circa 1717 to the 1930s. Act 1 takes place on a bustling movie set. Stage right (amid a sprinkling of cameras, lights, trunks and prop tables) is the star’s trailer, from which Adriana first emerges, languidly drawing on a large cigarette holder (think Gloria Swanson twenty years before Sunset Boulevard); stage left are the reverse sides of some flats. As the performance unfolds, both the trailer and flats, by being variously opened, rotated and connected are transformed into the lavish interior of the Prince de Bouillon’s villa, the Princesse de Bouillon’s salon and Adriana’s bedroom. These settings are enlivened by a constant procession of scheming gossipy actors, film crew, dignitaries, observers and the occasional Nazi in full SS uniform. As the ambient light diminishes, Colin Grenfell’s lighting design comes increasingly into its own. By Act 3, the venue is sufficiently dark for the broody, high-contrast lighting to layer Adriana’s reckless denunciation of the Princesse de Bouillon with an additional frisson of horror. This is a vibrant and intelligent updating, that feels unforced, and which, by and large, makes complete sense. The only jarring moment occurs during Act 1, when we listen to the stage manager, Michonnet commentate as a live audience can be heard applauding Adriana’s delivery, beyond our sight, of a theatrical monologue. There is also a misplaced moment of comedy at the end of the second act when, just as the Princesse is on the verge of being discovered in flagrante delicto by her husband, she attempts to retreat beneath a sheet as though she were Cherubino hiding from Count Almaviva.
It is, perhaps, indicative of the aforementioned problem with casting that, of the four main characters, Richard Burkhard’s lovesick, put-upon Michonnet is the performance that remains the most firmly imprinted in the memory once the house lights are turned back on. With his bald pate, glasses, tidy mustache and bow tie, he looks every inch the fussy bank manager. His firm, rich baritone, delivered with an impeccable legato, reveals his devotion and self-sacrifice with great poignancy. He also has excellent comic timing. Despite the role having none of the vocal fireworks that Cilea lavishes on his three other principals, his is the standout performance of the evening – one that deserves the highest praise.
Adriana Lecouvreur has become known as something of showcase for established divas with large opulent voices, who are in the latter stages of their careers. Given that fact and the relative infrequency with which it has been performed, the title role has become inextricably associated with a roll call of some of the best loved names of the twentieth century: Magda Olivero, Renata Tebaldi, Montserrat Caballé, Joan Sutherland and Mirella Freni have all left an indelible imprint in the minds of lovers of this work. It is a legacy that must loom large at the back of the mind of any soprano who takes on the role. As the eponymous Adriana, Cheryl Barker rises to the challenge with aplomb. Hers is a glamorous, feline presence, with the dramatic range to convey both the fragility and the ferocity that lie within the actress; there is an unnerving savagery in her Phèdre recitation. Vocally, there are obvious signs of wear towards bottom of the voice, where she was occasionally covered by the orchestra, but elsewhere the instrument gleams and carries easily. One might wish for a little more evenness in her legato in “Io son l’umile ancella” and “Poveri fiori”, but both arias made the required impact on the audience. (The final bars of the Act 1 aria sent a tingle down this audience member’s spine.) At the end, Miss Barker does the best that she can with what is one of the least plausible of operatic death scenes – which is the most that can really be hoped for.
Histrionically, in the role of Adriana’s lover, Maurizio, tenor Peter Auty gives a wholeheartedly committed performance. Full of energy, he is, by turn, dramatic, playful, angst-ridden and heroic. Vocally however, it is sad to report that he is mystifyingly and woefully miscast. For this opera to work as it should, Maurizio has to match Adriana note for note, forte for forte. The role is peppered, towards the top of the tenor range, with arching phrases and climactic high notes. It requires a big, lyric, Italianate sound that can ride an orchestra going at full throttle, and a voice that possesses generous quantities of squillo – expansion and ring as it rises. Although undoubtedly a fine singer in the right repertoire, Mr Auty’s voice has none of these essential attributes. Maurizio has to combat huge surges in sound from the pit, and here, I am afraid, it is an unequal fight. At times inaudible, at others throaty and tight, the voice whitened and seemed to shrink at every climax. The ardent “La dolcissima effigie sorridente” failed to soar, and his world-weary lament, “L’anima ho stanca”, passed without impact. The two duets with Adriana were unbalanced and felt, at times, like solos for the soprano. Things improved noticeably in Act 4, where the generally lighter scoring allows him to put less pressure on his voice. The timbre improved noticeably, and he was able to demonstrate some lovely phrasing.
As the jealous and vengeful Princesse de Bouillon, Tiziana Carraro is a blonde bombshell of a woman scorned. With a biting mezzo-soprano allied to movie-star looks, she spits bullets all evening, and is a perfect foil for Miss Barker. She has a tendency to overdo the chest resonance and to force the voice in the middle, but it is an exciting instrument. The Princess’s big moment comes at the beginning of Act 2 with the taxing “Acerbe voluttà”. Miss Carraro went at it with all guns blazing; long on oomph at the start, and short on lyricism in “O vagabonda stella” it might have been, but it was thrilling and compelling nonetheless.
Notable in the smaller roles are Simon Wilding as the Princesse de Bouillon’s clueless, cuckolded husband, and Robert Burt as his sleazy, oleaginous accomplice, the Abbé de Chazeuil. Maud Miller, Chloe Hinton, Peter Davoren and Ian Beadle as the company members do some excellent ensemble work, constantly buzzing, arguing and frolicking, and generally enlivening proceedings.
Under the direction of Manlio Benzi the excellent City of London Symphonia positively pulsates with veristic passion and idiomatic playing all evening. The huge washes of sound are managed with élan, and the detailed playing – especially from the woodwinds – is particularly fine. The only gripe here is the very occasional failure to maintain the balance between pit and stage to the detriment of the singers. The chorus doesn’t have a lot of music to sing in this opera, but what it has it performs with tremendous punch and commitment.
There is much to admire in this production but, at the end of the show, due to an unfortunate misstep in casting (one that does a disservice to both Cilea and the performer) it feels frustratingly like a tremendous opportunity missed.
(Photos : Fritz Curzon)