Gheorghiu, Kaufmann in Star-Power Adriana

Review by: Robert Levine


Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 10

Whenever I’m not listening to this opera, which is most of the time, I despise it. The plot’s intrigues are unclear, there are long moments of backstage fol-di-rol that are even worse than the outside-the-inn stuff in Manon, and Cilea has no compunction about using a good tune over and over again rather than doing something thoughtful or harmonically interesting—and has the nerve to use the big “Poveri fiori” melody as a prelude to the last act, in which the aria shows up 15 minutes later—in order to make the listener feel smart. And a 15-minute death scene? Caused by poisoned violets? Puhleeze!

But then I hear those melodies—more beautiful, perhaps than any composer’s since Bellini—and fall for the sheer Romanticism and gimmickry all over again, and sit and hope that soprano, tenor, and mezzo will convince me that I’m not tossing a perfectly good two-and-a-half-hour period into the garbage. In other words, this opera had better be sung magnificently and, if seen, be acted half to death. And the Adriana had better chew scenery—no notes held too long, no glance lacking meaning, no gesture too broad. Magda Olivero, Montserrat Caballé, and Renata Scotto are three of the “recent” proponents of the title role; none has ever been accused of understatement. This performance almost makes it.

The world of this opera is the theater: We are watching an opera singer sing the role of a great actress while the other singers (in the first act) are watching a great actress act from backstage; in the third, she delivers a dramatic monologue from Phaedra, in speech, to humiliate her rival. If our soprano overacts, is it because the character is overacting? One thing is certain: nothing in this opera can be underplayed. David McVicar directs on good-looking sets by Charles Edwards (with sumptuous 18th-century French-like costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel). They present an ideal artificiality: the proscenium is always somewhere in view—the stage-within-a-stage appears at different angles in different acts—stage hands are in full view; etc. McVicar looks for no subtexts; he presents these double-dealing, love-too-much, melodramatic characters without a gimmick, and with the world of the theater always central. He asks his two leads to embrace and kiss often; each is too vain to actually look as if in love with the other, but that’s a whole other issue.

The opera is known as a vehicle for sopranos. In fact, it is known as a vehicle for divas near the end of their careers: there are very few exposed high notes (and only one B-flat in the whole opera), and to be effective, sopranos must be willing to risk a certain amount of very chesty, aggressive singing. Angela Gheorghiu, an absolute legend in her own mind from the moment of her debut, takes the title role very seriously, and she is nowhere near the end of her career. Her voice remains gorgeous, her demeanor that of a great star, and her singing is beautiful throughout. But the voice is essentially a size too small and she will not push her voice (as did Scotto), particularly at the bottom of the range; Gheorghiu is a very cautious singer. And so some of the melodrama isn’t quite melodramatic enough. But her last act, hand-to-forehead and all, is ravishing. As always, you see the opera singer working the character, unlike the greats, who inhabit their roles; Gheorghiu has the spontaneity of a State-of-the-Union message. But in fact, there’s precious little to complain about.

And there’s (almost) absolutely nothing to complain about with Jonas Kaufmann’s Maurizio. This character—a sort-of cad who loves Adriana and pretends to love the Princess to further his political ambitions—has as much, if not more, beautiful music to sing than Adriana, and there’s really nothing Kaufmann’s voice can’t do. It’s a German/Italian hybrid sound: heavy-ish and baritonal but with gleaming high notes and the most staggering control over dynamics. He can bang out a high B-flat and diminish it to a whisper; he can sing at mezza-voce for long, long phrases; his fortes are almost Corelli-like in their intensity. He acts well and is devilishly handsome. What’s the complaint? Well, again—his vocal effects, though stunning, are calculated, and we can see the stitching. But he’s great nonetheless.

Olga Borodina radiates arrogance when she’s starring in comic roles, so you can imagine what she’s like as a Princess: perfect. Haughty, privileged, jealous, and angry—she’s got it all in attitude and spectacular vocal color, and the voice is in great shape. Alessandro Corbelli is a sweet and loving Michonnet, the stage manager who loves Adriana secretly, and he wins our sympathy and warmth. The rest of the cast, most of whose vocal lines are frivolous, is very good.

Keeping it all together is Mark Elder, who treats the work with respect—but thankfully, not awe: he gives it plenty of room to spin its pretty-but-stupid web, pretending the plot holes are not there. He knows the fragrances but won’t overuse them; the strings, which could really turn sappy if they wanted to, are kept from weeping. Perhaps because this opera practically requires a bit more vulgarity and “verismo” oomph, I wish the soprano and tenor were more reckless; but they’re not, and so this will do just fine. If this is your first contact with this work, it’s a superb introduction. Sit back and be vaguely embarrassed by it all.

Both picture and sound are superb, and TV director Francois Roussillon does a fine job. Subtitles are in English, French, German, and Spanish. A bonus features interviews with McVicar, et al—very natural and nice, except of course for Gheorghiu, who looks like the world’s youngest dowager empress of a poor country and is wearing a hat that should have its own zip code.

A video of this opera from 1976 starring Montserrat Caballé, Fiorenza Cossotto, and José Carreras at their vocal and dramatic best is available from VAI; picture quality is mediocre and the Japanese subtitles cannot be avoided (English can be placed on top of them), but it is a brilliant performance. Another, with Joan Sutherland, is an example of miscasting in the highest degree. A third, starring Mirella Freni and Peter Dvorsky, doesn’t make it.

Buy Now from Arkiv Music

Recording Details:

Reference Recording: This one; Caballé/Carreras (VAI)

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