Opera: Adriana Lecouvreur
Rare pefection - pity it's rarely seen
Royal Opera House, London WC2
Angela Gheorghiu and Jonas Kaufman: meriting the highest praise
Adriana Lecouvreur is one of those pieces that you have heard of, and most probably heard an aria or two from, but never actually seen.
Its composer, Francesco Cilea, is usually dismissed as a one-hit-wonder (a particularly stupid insult, since it attacks the victim for being a success; how many opera composers manage even one hit?). But immediately successful as Adriana Lecouvreur was after its premiere in 1902, the fact that it has not been seen at Covent Garden since 1906 shows that it hardly qualifies as a repertory piece.
Seeing and hearing this truly wonderful production makes one wonder why. Yes, the plot has all sorts of creaks and some of the music is not that wonderful, but it is a fantastic pot-boiler of an opera with a series of set-piece arias and non-stop dramatic tension. It surely merits more than one run of performances every 104 years.
It is sometimes said of Verdi's Il Trovatore that all you need for a successful performance is to have the four best singers in the world. Adriana Lecouvreur is somewhat similar in that, where an average performance of a great opera can still be very rewarding, an opera with some of Adriana Lecouvreur's holes needs above-average performances fully to work.
Thankfully it gets far more than that in David McVicar's new production. It gets stunning singing from a cast with not a single weak link, and magisterial conducting from Mark Elder, surely one of the greatest living opera conductors (and a not half-bad symphonic conductor, too, as those lucky enough to hear the Halle regularly will attest).
All too often, operas not of the front rank are ruined by directors who feel the need to impose their own supposed genius on a staging. David McVicar does Cilea the credit of taking his opera seriously and staging it as the composer intended, with a beautiful and cleverly designed set by Charles Edwards.
That lets us enjoy the drama on its own terms, and gives the singers the space in which to deliver some truly fabulous singing - and to act, if sometimes rather hammily.
The central role of the actress Adriana Lecouvreur has long been a vehicle for star sopranos, and it is made for Angela Gheorghiu, around whom this production was built. She can sometimes be infuriating; I have seen her singing from a score, looking bored and contemptuous of her audience. But when she is in the mood, as she is here, she is peerless, with a voice which ranges effortlessly across octaves and with a magnetic stage presence.
As her lover, the Count of Saxony, Jonas Kaufman soars with power and subtlety. His final whispered cry of despair as Lecouvreur succumbs to poisoning from her rival is haunting. The chemistry between these two star singers fills the theatre.
Michaela Schuster as that rival, the Princess of Bouillon, is the very definition of ham acting, but it works. And Alessandro Corbelli is noble and affecting as Michonnet, the stage director whom Lecouvreur regards as a father but who is in love with her.
Each of the principals merits the highest of praise. Taken together, this is an evening of rare perfection, gripping from first note to last.
(Until December 10. Tel: 020 7304 4000)