Most currently performed Italian operas from the turn of the 20th century are (a) verismo, (b) unremittingly high intensity and (c) by Puccini. Adriana Lecouvreur, by Francesco Cilea, is none of these three, but then Opera Holland Park has been making a staple of less performed Italian opera of the period.

Cheryl Barker (Adriana Lecouvreur) © Fritz Curzon
Cheryl Barker (Adriana Lecouvreur)
© Fritz Curzon

Although not in the top tier of operatic hits, Adriana is an opera that I love dearly, mainly for its ravishing score, full of melody and repeated motifs and charged with poignancy, and for its characterisation of the blurring between the on-stage and off-stage lives of actors. In spite of its reputation for having an impenetrable plot, the main plot line is actually quite simple – the Princesse de Bouillon has lost her lover Maurizio, Count of Saxony, to a rival; she discovers that the rival is the actress Adriana Lecouvreur and murders her. The murder weapon is celebratedly silly (a poisoned bunch of violets) and the wealth of subplots and minor characters is difficult to decipher on paper, but it’s all obvious enough in the flesh.

In contrast to some opera productions, it’s clear that director Martin Lloyd-Evans also loves this opera: everything is done to elucidate the plot and reinforce the fevered theatrical atmosphere with its fault lines between the thespians and the nobility. The setting, originally the Comédie Française of Molière’s day, is moved successfully to early Hollywood (although the play-within-a-play costumes remain elaborately ancien régime with powder and wigs). Jamie Vartan’s sets are based around a trailer which transforms cleverly to become either the stars’ dressing room, the Princess’s love nest or the stage of the Prince’s private theatre. Stagecraft is intelligent throughout, notably so in the scene in Act II where the Princess and Adriana meet in the dark, unwilling to reveal their identities to each other, which was riveting, and acting was good throughout.

Caveat: my view of the musical performance is severely affected by my seat position, fairly close to the far right hand end of the stage, immediately by the large percussion unit, with trombones and tuba close by but pointing slightly away from me. From some quirk of acoustics, I lost the mid-range of the strings almost entirely (low notes and the top of the violin range were fine), and singers were often pointed away from me. The resulting balance was problematic, to say the least, both within the orchestra and between orchestra and singers. Listeners seated elsewhere may therefore have a very different view: I can’t tell for sure.

Manlio Benzi’s rendering of the score seemed to me to be deliberately distanced from Puccini, with focus on the repeated motifs and the woodwind colouring, and very little of the sweeping dramatic string arcs. Other performances I’ve heard have far more of the romantic sweep, and the opera loses something without it.

Cheryl Barker (Adriana) and Peter Auty (Maurizio) © Fritz Curzon
Cheryl Barker (Adriana) and Peter Auty (Maurizio)
© Fritz Curzon

Almost all the singers seemed to struggle to a greater or lesser extent to be heard above the orchestra. As Maurizio, the leading tenor needs to have a big, ardent voice and a swagger: Peter Auty had neither, often difficult to hear above the background wash. The top notes seemed only just within his compass: there was an audible transition in his voice at the beginning of a phrase that would lead up to a high note, as if he was limbering up for it. Our two leading ladies, Cheryl Barker in the title role, and Tiziana Carraro as the princess, were at their best when singing together: their confrontations at the  climaxes of Acts II and III were the high points of the opera. Individually, Barker was fluent and smooth in the title role, if perhaps lacking that last touch of emotional involvement, and Carraro made a good villainess.

The show, however, was stolen comprehensively by Richard Burkhard as the put-upon stage manager Michonnet. It’s an appealing role: Michonnet is hopelessly in love with Adriana but soon realises that he has gone from being too poor for her to too old for her; none the less, he behaves with utter fidelity and sensitivity. Burkhard was wonderfully poignant and lyrical, a smooth voice delightful to listen to in every aria.

To repeat, Adriana Lecouvreur is an opera I love, and this highly sympathetic production is one that deserves to be a delight to many. I’m hoping that the apparent orchestral failings were more due to my seat position than anything else and/or that balance will improve through the run.

***11