Giacomo Puccini comprehensively eclipsed the other Italian composers of his era. Three of them remain in the repertoire as one hit wonders: Mascagni, Leoncavallo and Francesco Cilea, whose four act Adriana Lecouvreur opened at Covent Garden last night. It's the story of a love triangle which ends in murder, set backstage at the Comédie Française in the 18th century and based on a true story (or at least, on a story that was widely believed at the time): the real Adrienne Lecouvreur died in 1730, probably poisoned by her rival, the Princesse de Bouillon.

Angela Gheorghiu as Adriana and Jonas Kaufmann as Maurizio, © The Royal Opera / Catherine Ashmore, November 2010
Angela Gheorghiu as Adriana and Jonas Kaufmann as Maurizio,
© The Royal Opera / Catherine Ashmore, November 2010

When you read the synopsis, the plot sounds convoluted beyond belief, and the murder weapon (a bunch of violets) must surely rate as terrifyingly daft even by opera's usually high improbability levels. But I was surprised to find that the plot was fairly straightforward to follow and, for the most part, hung together reasonably well. It may not have been the most intense verismo drama, but there was a fair depiction of the behaviour of the nobility and the weird position of actresses in French society of the time. All in all, Adriana Lecouvreur is much more than a pretty, inconsequential period piece.

The Royal Opera assembled an all-star cast. As Adriana's lover Maurizio, Jonas Kaufmann showed why he is one of the hottest properties currently on the operatic circuit: he has matinée idol looks and stage presence by the bucketload, combined with a voice that is powerful and mellifluous. Angela Gheorghiu, who is possibly an even bigger box office draw, also has the looks, acting ability and voice, although she was some way off her maximum power level yesterday, and was occasionally drowned out by the other singers or by an overenthusiastic orchestra (conducted with a fair dose of brio by Sir Mark Elder). Howevever, Gheorghiu stepped up to the mark for her Act IV aria Poveri fiori, the best known aria in the opera and a real showstopper, for which she gained rapturous applause.

For me, however, the show was stolen by Covent Garden regular Alessandro Corbelli, who convinced me totally as the theatre director Michonnet. Corbelli ranged by turns from figure of fun to tender, sad, poignant or lyrical: he tugged on the heartstrings in the scene ecco il monologo, sung as he is wistfully watching on stage the woman he adores but for who he knows is too young for him, and sang even more poignantly in his Act IV aria Taci, mio vecchio cor (“be quiet, my aging heart”).

I was expecting an abstract, modernist production from director David McVicar, and I could not have been more wrong. This production kept extremely faithful to the original settings, from the period costumes to the construction of two convincing theatre-within-a-theatre replicas for the Comédie Française and the ballet stage in the prince’s palace. I loved every moment: the attention to every detail of sets, costumes and acting was minute, and both the backstage and front-of-house scenes depicted the theatre’s atmosphere wonderfully, all done with great cleverness which that supported the scene rather than drawing attention to the production itself. Even the tongue-in-cheek kitsch of the ballet had me beguiled.

What makes all this even more impressive is that it’s a co-production with Vienna, Paris, Barcelona and San Francisco. You have to believe that such a wide range of partners makes things difficult for the production team: after all, these are very different stages with (presumably) very different artistic direction. But I couldn’t see any problems, and I thought the sets, by Charles Edwards, were magnificent.

If you were to accuse Adriana Lecouvreur of being “just like Puccini, only not quite as good”, it would probably have to plead guilty. But the margin of guilt is very slender. It’s true that this is an opera where the plot and drama supports the music, rather than the other way round, but the drama is not at all bad and the music is ravishing. This production brings out the best, and I enjoyed the evening thoroughly.

By the way, if you're baffled by the plot and the characters, try our handy pocket cast guide in David's blog...