Whatever happened to poisoning? It used to be a drama plot staple in everything from “The Duchess of Malfi” (poisoned bible), “Tristan und Isolde” (death potion) and “Lucrezia Borgia” (let me count the ways) to “Adriana Lecouvreur” (poisoned violets). The absurdity of its plot is the major reason that Francisco’s Cilea’s one-hit-wonder has largely vanished from view. That the Royal Opera’s luxuriant revival is so successful is a tribute to conductor Mark Elder’s control of musical values and David McVicar’s staging, which, amazingly, even manages to grant the piece dignity.
Unlike Puccini’s wafer-thin “La Rondine,” another opera dragged from obscurity as a vehicle for Angela Gheorghiu, “Adriana Lecouvreur,” turns out to have more to offer than a handful of vocal and costume opportunities. Alongside the overly complicated workings of a plot about Adriana (Gheorghiu) and the Princess of Bouillon (marvelously vicious and accurate Michaela Schuster), love rivals for the affection of Maurizio, pretender to the throne of Poland (Jonas Kaufmann), there are moments of unexpectedly detailed character writing.
Alessandro Corbelli finds wit and touching sentiment in his beautifully subtle portrayal of old stage manager Michonnet who loves Adriana but sensibly settles for fatherly affection. Equally, Bonaventura Bottone brings enjoyable glee and a zinging tenor voice, to the role of the meddlesome Abbe.
Dramatically speaking, Gheorghiu could sleepwalk the role of the eponymous heroine, a grand yet love-torn diva. It’s a prize role, not least because the role showcases the opera’s greatest hit aria “Io son l’umile ancella,” a faux modest version of Tosca’s “Vissi d’arte.” Better still, coming within moments of her first appearance, it not only sets up the character, but when sung as well as it is here, it puts the audience devotedly on the singer’s side.
Low-lying and largely dark of tone, vocally Adriana is ideally placed for Gheorghiu. The same can also largely be said for Jonas Kaufmann, whose ardent ringing top is catapulting him to the top of every major’s house wish. The lower reaches of his voice, as shown up by Maurizio, don’t have the same focus but it’s a small price to pay, particularly his handling of high-lying pianissimo phrases. His quietly intense duets with Gheorghiu were among the night’s highlights.
The other hallmark of the production was the conducting of Elder who finessed unexpected woodwind colors, punctuated phrases with tuned percussion and found space to spotlight Cilea’s lovely harp writing.
McVicar and his set designer Charles Edwards take the piece’s theatrical metaphor and elegantly run with it. Each of the four acts uses a stage within a stage. Not only does this ground the piece, which begins and ends backstage, it gives much needed unity to the libretto and provides a context for the melodramatic activities of the principles.
At the very end, McVicar brings on a line of silent actors who doff their caps to the dead heroine. Such gravitas turns out to be as affecting as it is unexpected, a fitting close to an evening that is old-fashioned in the very best sense.