- Associated Press - Sunday, December 5, 2010

LONDON (AP) - High-class hokum it may be, but when “Adriana Lecouvreur” is cast with terrific singers and staged with old-fashioned opulence, who cares?

David McVicar’s new production for the Royal Opera House pretty much sweeps aside all reservations, as do the international stars who performed on Saturday night: Romanian soprano Angela Gheorghiu, German tenor Jonas Kaufmann, Russian mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina and Italian baritone Alessandro Corbelli.

Francesco Cilea’s best-known opera, which premiered in 1902 and hadn’t been staged at Covent Garden since 1906, is an easy work to ridicule.

Based on a play about real characters in 18th-century France, it recounts a love triangle that pits Adriana, an actress at the Comedie Francaise, against the imperious Princesse de Bouillon for the love of Maurizio, the dashing count of Saxony.

The overly complicated plot turns on such improbabilities as hidden identity, a purloined love note, a confrontation in a darkened room, a secret door, and to top it off, a poisoned nosegay of violets which the princess sends Adriana to kill her when she inhales its fragrance.

Musically, it’s a bit like watered-down Puccini. There are some lovely tunes (mainly the two big arias for the title character) and moments of impressive melodramatic bombast. But “Adriana” also has more than its share of arid stretches.

The only way to pull it off is for everyone involved to take the piece absolutely seriously _ and that’s what the crew at the Royal Opera has done.

To start with, in Gheorghiu the performance had a soprano with a beautiful voice who is also a gifted actress. That’s crucial, because Adriana is always acting. Her very first appearance finds her rehearsing her lines for that evening’s play (In McVicar’s clever staging, a curtain is suddenly swept aside to reveal her seated in her dressing room). And the opera’s climax comes when she publicly humiliates the princess by pointing at her while declaiming a speech from Racine’s “Phedre” that talks of a bold-faced, brazen woman.

Vocally, Gheorghiu may have a slender thread of a voice, but what a gorgeous thread it is. And she milks every ounce of emotion possible out of the softly soaring phrases in Cilea’s music.

Borodina was in resplendent form as the princess, unleashing her plush, powerhouse voice without ever sacrificing refinement for sheer volume. Eyes smoldering as she paced the floor, she surely would have easily devoured any rival less formidable than Gheorghiu.

Kaufmann had a few hints of hoarseness in his delivery, but for the most part he used his supple tenor to thrilling effect, whether on his commanding high notes or his ravishing, extended soft phrases.

Together, they made for such a glorious trio _ visually as well as vocally _ that it was easy to overlook a few shortcomings: Gheorghiu’s lower register is barely audible; Borodina sometimes hits her notes slightly under pitch; and Kaufmann’s dark, baritonal coloring won’t please those who want a brighter sound from their tenors.

Good as they were, the evening would not have been such a success without Corbelli’s remarkable performance in the role of Michonnet, the long-suffering stage manager who is secretly in love with Adriana.

Corbelli, best known as an expert comedian in bel canto opera, gave the opera a rare moment of genuine pathos in the scene in Act 1 when he tried to blurt out his true feelings only to learn that Adriana already has a lover.

McVicar’s production imagines the whole opera as a series of on-stage or back-stage scenes. The wonderfully elaborate sets by Charles Edwards include a wooden stage for Act 1 that rotates so we see Adriana and the other actors from different angles as they perform. In the final scene, the stage looms over Adriana as she dies her agonizing death, while her fellow actors step forward to mourn her. Brigitte Reiffenstuhl’s lavish period costumes add to the evocation of a bygone era.

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