First things first: it was a wonderful evening! Brilliantly sung, superbly and intelligently staged, Adriana Lecouvreur was a triumph for the Liceu, as was evident from the exuberant clapping and "bravos" from the audience.
The production was a cooperation between no fewer than five international opera houses: the Liceu, Covent Garden, the Vienna State Opera, the Opera de Paris and the San Francisco Opera. There was absolutely no evidence of too many cooks: whoever made the final decisions chose to present a super-melodramatic story straightforwardly, conventionally and with absolutely no distracting gimmicks. (Not even a nude.) The complex scenery functioned flawlessly and offered a multifaceted view of the story. Particularly clever was the opening act. The main action and all the singing, took place at the front of the stage, in the dressing-rooms of the actors and actresses of the Comedie Francaise, while on a higher level at the back of the stage, actors silently and unobtrusively rehearsed their play, adding a persuasive reality to the whole scene.
The tragic heroine of this opera, Adriana Lecouvreur, was a famous actress of the Comedie Francaise at the beginning of the 18th century and, however much fictional detail was later injected into her story, the fact remains that she was indeed poisoned, at the age of 38, by her frantic rival in a love affair. When the opera opens, Adriana, sung by Barbara Frittoli, is already in love with Maurizio (Robert Alagna), who, as far as she knows, is a lowly army officer. In fact, for unexplained reasons (though it would appear that he is something of a political wheeler-dealer), he has concealed his real identity. Far from being lowly, he is the Marshal Count of Saxony, involved in a struggle to claim the throne of Poland, for which he needs support from the French court. For this reason, he had, until he met Adriana, been wooing the influential wife of the super-influential Prince de Bouillon. Apparently not being the type to sacrifice all for love, he attempts to juggle the two women with complicated consequences, the worst of which is the eventual murder of his true love by the Princesse de Bouillon. He doesn’t come across as the most noble of lovers, but we must forgive him because he sings like an angel.
Francesco Cilea, who based his opera on the play of the same name, was an exponent of the Italian verismo movement that moved opera away from stories of aristocracy, queens, kings and goddesses and brought it down to "real people". It also injected quite a dose of melodrama, which is a definite matter of taste. The opening night at the Liceu was nothing if not melodramatic.
We had an example of verismo earlier in the season with La Boheme but it was a considerably less heavyhanded verismo. I have no complaint with Ms. Frittoli as the doomed Adriana, Roberto Alagna as Maurizio and Dolora Zajick as the poisonous Princesse. They all sang beautifully, but for my taste, a little bit too forte. Melodrama is all very well, but it needs softer moments to have its impact. I heard a concert version of the opera at Carnegie Hall last November, with Angela Ghiorghiu and Jonas Kaufmann, and despite the lack of scenery and with only minimal acting, it was not pure fortissimo all the time, which, ironically, made it more melodramatic when it needed to be. Evidently, however, I was more or less alone in this minor discontent, since the entire audience rang with enthusiasm after every aria.
The one quietly moving character was Michonnet, the stage director who was helplessly and hopelessly in love with Adriana. The role was sung magnificently, with restraint and dignity, by Joan Pons. The orchestration provided more variation and detail than the arias, and I found myself listening to it more intently than usual. One tends to take the poor pit musicians for granted, as background to the stars. But in this case they played a more complex version of the belted-out arias. And the pastoral ballet (play-within-the-play), instead of being a boring interruption as they so often are, was beautifully integrated into the unfolding story as the two rivals for Maurizio’s love watch the exquisite performance with growing anger and unease.
Whether or not verismo at its most fierce is one’s cup of tea, the Liceu is to be warmly congratulated for a top-class performance. I wish I could see all three of the casts, because each singer subtly alters the atmosphere of the work. I saw La Boheme at the beginning of its run, with Fiorenza Cedolins, and at the end, with Angela Ghiorghiu. They sang the same words, wore almost the same costumes and made the same gestures. But they inhabited the role differently and it was fascinating to see the effect on the whole presentation. Once again, with this opera, there are three excellent casts, which means there will be three slightly different experiences. It is a bit like a lucky dip.
There is plenty of opportunity to see Adriana Lecouvreur and I strongly recommend that you do so. There are 12 more performances, until Sunday, June 3rd. Frittoli, Alagna and Zajick will perform on May 18th, 22nd, 26th, 30th and June 3rd.
Fabio Armiliato, Daniela Dessi and Marianne Cornetti will sing the principal roles on May 17th, 21st and 25th. On May 19th, 23rd and 27th, Carlo Ventre, Micaela Carosi and Elisabetta Fiorillo take over. If you want to hear Joan Pons, he is singing on May 18th, 22nd, 26th and June 3rd.
One quick postscript. This weekend and the next, May 19th, 26th and 27th, the Liceu is presenting, at 11am, a short opera by Xavier Montsalvatge based on Puss in Boots. If you listen to the clip on the Internet, it sounds delightful, and looks bright and cheery. It is being presented three times and is a real gift for families who hope to pass on their love of opera to their children. The tickets are a flat €18. Read Josephine's review of the opera here.