The Plays the thing / wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King. Adriana Lecouvreur, like Hamlet, is a work about theatricality about art and artifice, emotion and deception. The great actress whose story the opera tells was the daughter of a milliner who went on to become close friends with Voltaire, and who almost single-handedly changed the classical style of acting at the Comdie Francaise from sing-song declamation to the kind of emotionally involving speech which we take for granted today. The work is a natural vehicle for Angela Gheorghiu, but remarkable as her singing and acting are, she does not outshine the rest of the cast.
This is hardly surprising, given that her Maurizio is the tenor du jour Jonas Kauffman, the role of her hopeless lover Michonnet is given to the unique Alessandro Corbelli, the Abbé is sung by a one-time Duke of Mantua, and even Mademoiselle Jouvenot is taken by a soprano who is herself a notable prima donna. These larger than life personalities are wonderfully framed by David McVicars production, which comes as near to perfection as I’ve seen, being beautiful, delicate, subtle, exact and engaging.
The Gheorgians and the Kauffmaniacs were out in force on this first night, and their idols did not disappoint. Angela Gheorghiu is often presented in superficial interviews as a daunting diva, and Jonas Kauffman as a knee-tremble-inducing tenorhunk, but little else; in both cases, these personae are far from the real story, and this opera revealed them both to be exactly what they are, which is genuine stars of the stage, masters of their art and artifice down to the smallest detail.
It would be so easy for Gheorghiu to reprise her peerless Tosca here after all, both heroines are divas with pretensions to social conscience but instead she gives us a rounded portrayal of this complex woman, touching in her dependence on her lover, insouciant in her failure to pick up on Michonnets passion, and above all searing in her recitation of the scene from Phaedra. The famous set piece arias were sung with exquisite phrasing and eloquence, Io son lumile ancella in particular as direct and individual as if it had never been sung before.
Kaufmann is the singer Domingo always wanted to be Walther von Stolzing with italianit and he presents a compelling no-good-boyo Maurizio, his magisterial tones subtly scaled down for a tender La dolcissima effigie and pared to a shimmering thread for the final cry. As with all truly great singers, its not the big bow-wow moments which impress, but the subtlety of the pianissimi and the ability to draw the eye without hogging it.
This was not the first ROH production in which Alessandro Corbelli almost upstaged the two starry principals; his Sulpice in La Fille du Rgiment easily equalled Flórez and Dessay, and here his Michonnet showed that this is really the true hero of the piece, the simpatico theatre manager who organizes everyone elses life but who cannot control the devastating reality that his utter devotion to Adriana is unrequited. The scene where he tries to express his ardour was an object lesson in the art of the singing actor.
The cast is remarkably strong: Bonaventura Bottone’s seasoned Duke of Mantua informs his confident, fluent Abbé, Janis Kelly is an ideal Jouvenot, and Maurizio Muraro makes his house debut with a sonorous Prince de Bouillon. Michaela Schuster’s Princesse is not the usual blustery mezzo; in keeping with the style of the production, it is she and not Adriana who is the really theatrical one, her passion and anger expressed in arias as vivid as the heroines declamation of Racine.
The work is about the theatre, with all its tawdriness, glamour, artificiality and insecurity, and this production perfectly captures that. The play within a play can be used not only to force a murderer to reveal his guilt, as in Hamlet, but to point up the nature of the connection between artifice and reality. McVicar and the set designer Charles Edwards have created an eighteenth-century light box theatre within the stage, wonderfully employed in the ballet scene which is staged as though in the Georgian Theatre in Richmond (Yorkshire) with its sliding flats and painted mechanisms. The mise en scne is beautifully detailed, and more importantly it is the perfect setting for episodes such as Michonnets observations as he watches Adriana on stage; the theatrical metaphor of a singer seen but not heard in an acting role, whilst another singer shares with the audience his enraptured reaction to her art, is at the core of this production.
Mark Elder conducted a lovingly shaped account of Cileas score, focusing on the cantabile passages without attempting to Puccini-ize the evening. The strings during Adrianas first aria were meltingly beautiful, and the sensuous quality which characterizes Maurizios music was never over-played. The chorus and members of the Comdie Francaise were integral to the concept: the final tableau, with the actors witnessing the death of the actress who had so long epitomized their art, will stay with me for a long time.