United Kingdom Cilea, Adriana Lecouvreur: Soloists, Chorus of Opera Holland Park, City of London Sinfonia/Manlio Benzi, Holland Park, London, 24.7.2014 (CC)
Cheryl Barker (soprano), Adriana Lecouvreur
Peter Auty (tenor), Maurizio
Tiziana Carraro (mezzo), Princess de Bouillon
Richard Burkhard (bass), Michonnet
Robert Burt (tenor), Abbe de Chazeuil
Ian Beadle (baritone), Quinault
Peter Davoren (tenor), Poisson
Maud Miller (soprano), Mlle Jouvenot
Chloe Hinton (soprano), Mlle Dangeville
Martin Lloyd-Jones, Director
Jamie Vartan, Set Designer
Colin Grenfell, Lighting Designer
It was good to see Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur here, in a production that, despite occasional wobbly sets, was decidedly thought-provoking. Musically, there was an enormous amount to admire, not least from the City of London Sinfonia, clearly inspired by the conductor on this occasion, Manlio Benzi. It was this conductor who so impressed in the inventive coupling of Mascagni’s rarely heard Zanetto with Puccini’s far more familiar Gianni Schicchi in 2011 (see my review). Cilea’s is a wondrous score, often deftly written, as in the opening scene (which seemed cut from the same cloth as much of Puccini’s Schicchi), but also full of long-breathed lyric lines. Benzi seems to understand the fizz of the exuberance as keenly as he did the legato of tragedy, and it was clear from the first downbeat that the City of London Sinfonia responded to him. They have been on top form this season, it seems (from my previous outings to Fanciulla and Turn of the Screw), but on this occasion they really shone. Be it patter duet or death scene, Benzi kept the ensemble tight and projected exactly the right emotions for the scene involved.
The opera was set, here, somewhere in the early to mid twentieth century (there are TV lights, what looks like a 1950’s caravan), as opposed to 1730. Occasional uniforms implied Fascist overtones. Lighting was expertly managed by Colin Grenfell (always tricky when real daylight is involved). The opera survived its move to another century courtesy of the eternal emotions it conveys: Manlio as part of a M/2F threesome (with Adriana and the Princesse de Bouillon) and all the tensions and machinations that involves. If jealousy-inspired death by poisoned bouquet is perhaps rather camp, by that stage one is so enmeshed with the high theatricality of it all one hardly notices.
As the titular heroine, Cheryl Barker was on terrific form once an initial warble had been sorted out. And it was, quickly. Peter Auty, heard recently in Chelsea Opera Group’s Stiffelio, was in splendid voice for the vital role of Maurizio, and here his voice was more secure in the louder passages. If occasionally Auty could scoop himself up to high notes, it was never enough to become an affectation. His “La dolcissima effigie” was a triumph of the long lyric line, and the ensuing interactions with Barker found then on equal footing vocally. From there, it was no looking back for Barker, whose major scenes emerged as the highlights of the evening.
As the other third of the threesome, Tiziana Carraro made a fine fist of the Princess de Bouillon, in excellent voice and nicely convincing in her role. Yet it was Richard Burkhard’s Michonnet that was most memorable of all, full of voice and perfect of diction (even at considerable velocity). Whether in solo or on crowded stage, Burkhard’s contributions were those of someone absolutely inside his character. No warm-in period, no weakness anywhere in his vocal range, and although not one of the absolute principal characters this was the assumption of the night. All of the lesser roles were carefully chosen, giving the impression of a production by a real ensemble. Much thought went into this production, much rehearsal into the musical realisation of Cilea’s gloriously flowing score, where melodies spill out from a seemingly eternal spring.
Cilea’s undervalued opera may be finally, and deservedly, coming into its own. The Royal Opera, Covent Garden staged it in 2010; Chelsea Opera Group the year before that. Now this. It is a score that fully deserves more fame; the rather convoluted storyline partially scuppers its chances, but there is so much compensatory enjoyment to be had as one’s emotions are manipulated all over the place that this surely must mark a resurfacing of Lecouvreur into core repertoire. One hopes so.