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Operatic Passions

Francesco Cilea's 'Adriana Lecouvreur',
reviewed by ROBERT HUGILL


Unlike robust masterpieces like La bohème and Tosca which are relatively performance proof, Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur requires careful handling in order to bring out its best points. Care needs to be taken not just in a staging, but even in a concert performance where the allocation of voices and general issues of style can be damaging to what is a relatively fragile work.

Cilea's opera dates from 1902 and is based on a play by Eugene Scribe which describes episodes in the life of the 17th century French actress Adrienne Lecouvreur. The opera includes the basic facts, but mixed into a highly coloured narrative which requires a degree of suspension of disbelief. The closing scene, where Adriana dies after sniffing poisoned violets aims at the sort of melodrama achieved by Ponchielli in La Gioconda, but can easily fall into bathos.

On Sunday night (15 February 2009) Chelsea Opera Group gave us a concert performance of the opera at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall with a cast led by Nelly Miricioiu, Rosalind Plowright and Peter Auty. This was the third time that I had seen this fascinating but tricky work.

My first acquaintance was in the 1980s at the San Carlo opera house in Naples with Maria Chiara, very much the old fashioned sort of diva, in the title role. Then the piece received a rare London staging at Holland Park in 2002. This time it was Rosalind Plowright as the Princesse de Bouillon who ate the scenery with Christine Bunning as an elegant but relatively restrained Adriana. The result was to down play the work's high passion and highlight the rather farcical back-stage goings on that form the back drop to the work.

For their concert performance there was no danger that Chelsea Opera Group's diva, Nelly Miricioiu would down-play the passion, there was much more danger that she would go too far and plunge the work into grand guignol. In fact nothing like that happened.

Conductor Andrew Greenwood obviously loves the work and, more importantly, knows how it should go. He encouraged both orchestra and singers to make the most of Cilea's divine melodies, introducing flexibility and rubato, whilst keeping the flow and never becoming self indulgent.

Miricioiu certainly wasn't self indulgent; she caressed Cilea's vocal lines and ensured that we took Adriana and her passion seriously, but hardly lapsed into caricatured mannerism. It must be fatally easy to resort to a general all purpose belting when it comes to Adriana's big tunes, but Miricioiu did not have to do that, she fined her voice down at high points and gave us a sophisticated but not understated account of the role. Miricioiu is a very dramatic performer, with a highly mobile face, so this never felt like a simple concert performance.

It helped that she was supported by three other extremely strong principals. As Adriana's rival, the Princesse de Bouillon, Rosalind Plowright repeated her Opera Holland Park success. Both she and Miricioiu sang off the book, which made a great difference to their performances. It enabled both singers to fully engage with the audience and project supremely well-rounded portrayals.

It didn't matter that there was no scenery, Plowright chewed it any way, projecting the character's jealousy and anger with remarkable vehemence. But Plowright doesn't bawl and her voice is in superb condition, so that she was a pleasure to both watch and listen to. It is a testament to her vocal health, after her change to mezzo-soprano, that she can sing Fricka and Klytemnestra and still sing other operatic roles so beautifully.

As the man in the middle, as it were, loved by both ladies, Peter Auty's Maurizio could have been limited because he was singing from a score. But you hardly noticed. Auty has developed a lovely rich tenor voice, with a distinctly Italianate ping, which goes all the way to the top. Maurizio is not a sophisticated role, the tenor has little to do apart from either be in love or be martial. But Auty did it beautifully and balanced his two women nicely. Pretending to be in love with a diva whilst perched on the edge of a concert platform, with a hundred or so musicians and singers on stage behind you can't be easy, but Auty managed it.

Between them he and Miricioiu made Adriana's death scene credible, lifting Cilea's glorious music to the heights and making us suspend disbelief.

The fourth member of the quartet of principals is Michonnet, the stage director who is in love with Adriana but never tells her. Craig Smith was believable and touching in the role, particularly in his aria when he tells the audience of his love for Adriana.

But the opera requires more than just four principals: there are in fact ten singing roles, and Chelsea Opera Group cast all of these from strength. Acting as a sort of chorus and providing a comic back-drop to the action were the quartet of Comedie Française actors played by Victoria Joyce, Alison Kettlewell, Hubert Francis and Simon Lobelson. Cilea does not really characterise them separately but instead creates for them a series of delightful and hilarious ensembles. The four young singers obviously had an enjoyable time and created just the right fun but musical atmosphere, against which Miricioiu, Auty and Plowright were able to portray their darker passions.

More farceurs than genuine villains were Daniel Grice and Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks as the Prince de Bouillon and the Abbé Chazeuil. Grice was really far too young for the elderly Prince and sang with a wonderful firmness of tone; I am looking forward to his Papageno for English Touring Opera later this year. Mackenzie-Wicks created a delightful cameo as the pleasure loving Abbé.

The Chelsea Opera Group chorus rather got the short straw in this performance as Cilea gave them very little to do, partly I think because the quartet of actors forms a sort of substitute chorus.

The orchestra, however, was given plenty to do as not only does Cilea allow them access to a whole raft of gorgeous melodies, but there is ballet music as well. The advantage of this performance over the Opera Holland Park one was that conductor Andrew Greenwood had at his disposal an orchestra of sixty six players. They made a lovely rich sound and relished Cilea's melodies, but never overwhelmed the singers. Under Greenwood's firm but flexible direction they let the music flow and breathe and made space for the singers. Not everything was completely perfect; this was a concert after all. There were moments when the strings sounded a little undernourished but such moments were rapidly swept away.

The big advantage of this performance was that it brought the high passions of Adriana, Maurizio and the Princesse de Bouillon firmly into focus. Theirs are large scale, operatic passions and must be projected on a large scale, without being self-indulgent. Miricioiu, Auty and Plowright did exactly this, against the finely textured and often amusing backdrop created by the remaining cast and orchestra.

Given a performance as strong as this, it was difficult not to fall in love with Adriana once again and to hope that someone in London will give her the full scale staging that she deserves.

Copyright © 17 February 2009 Robert Hugill, London UK


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