An indisposed Ermonela Jaho was unavailable to open a rare Opera Australia production of Cilea’s verismo masterpiece Adriana Lecouvreur, but her late arrival did mean that her cover, the Armenian-Australian Natalie Aroyan had the time to rehearse both the role and director Rosetta Cucchi’s interesting interpretation of it. One might argue that some of her passionate conversations with Michael Fabiano’s Maurizio weren’t, despite everything, perfectly in synch. But no one could deny her passion.

Natalie Aroyan (Adriana Lecouvreur)
© Keith Saunders

And no one could fail to believe that her 18th-century thespian character – based on a real star actress – was just the humble handmaiden (“l’umile ancella”) of scripts by such masters as Racine and Corneille. Indeed Aroyan’s signature opening of spoken lines from Racine’s Bazajet showed her to be a true, naturalistic Lecouvreur. Maurizio’s callow dropping of her text, then walking over it, raised distinct doubts as to whether this (unrevealed) claimant to the Kingdom of Poland was in her arms in Paris primarily for politics or for love.

Michael Fabiano (Maurizio) and Natalie Aroyan (Adriana Lecouvreur)
© Keith Saunders

With Adriana’s rival – Carmen Topciu’s Princesse de Bouillion – Maurizio was certainly prioritising her influence at court over her charms in bed, much to her fury. Dressed unhelpfully in a 19th-century wedding cake of a dress, Topciu portrayed one of opera’s most evil women to the hilt. Who said that all opera heroines do nothing but love, suffer and die? In a magnificent scene in which the rivals for Maurizio’s favour test each other out anonymously through a closed door, (“Si, con l’ansia, con l’impeto ardente”), the unclassifiable actor and the noble lady taken in adultery both give as good as they get.

If only Adriana had taken the loving advice of her stage manager Michonnet (a too-youthful Giorgio Caoduro) that there could be no true love between “we bohemians” and the nobility, he might have won his young beloved over before she was on the point of death – poisoned, ironically, by the bunch of violets that she’d given Maurizio and he’d weakly handed on to the princess!

Giorgio Caoduro (Michonnet)
© Keith Saunders

Here Cucchi played her finest trick. Having confused us somewhat by progressing time through the centuries to 1968 for Act 4 – when surely, during the Paris Spring, princesses no longer held any sway – she turned around the Traviata-esque reconciliation between dying heroine and absent lover through the artifice of film. First she played the Dorian Gray trick of aging the poisoned Adriana’s face on screen, then she made Maurizio’s return and offer of marriage a figment of Adriana’s fervid imagination, happening only on screen.

Carmen Topciu (Princesse de Bouillon)
© Guy Davies

Not only did this overcome the unlikely sentimentality of the politic Polish prince offering his flower girl a crown – to which she wisely declines – but it allowed poor old Michonnet to get all the hugs and kisses intended for Maurizio. Now (1968) is his time – except for the fact that, scrawled on the back of the stage and taken from Paris graffiti of that time, “Time is an invention for people incapable of love”.

Originally staged during Covid at the Teatro Comunale di Bologna in 2021, Cucchi’s production was then streamed around the world. It was subsequently staged by Ópera de Oviedo last year, starring the absent Ermonela Jaho, with the young Italian maestro Leonardo Sini conducting, as he was in Sydney. The band in the Opera House’s expanded pit may have been slightly too loud on occasions so that the important words of verismo interchanges were lost. But Cilea’s bouncy score captured changing moods perfectly, from the delicate despair when Adriana re-encounters her violets (“Poveri fiori”) to the music that turns from Adriana’s resounding “I am avenged” after she’s publicly underlined the princess’s adultery in a recitation from Phèdre to a presage of the disaster to come that says, “This will not end well”.

Michael Fabiano (Maurizio) and Carmen Topciu (Princesse de Bouillon)
© Keith Saunders

This is a convincing production, with a more-then-convincing role debut by a richly voiced and characterful Michael Fabiano as the less-than-convincing lover, Maurizio. Ermonela Jaho’s return will no doubt add riches; but Natalie Aroyan’s heroic substitution can be proudly added to her CV.