“I will return! I want to again be intoxicated by the triumphant smile of art!” proclaims the actress Adriana Lecouvreur in the extravagant opera of the same title. With this role, the soprano Angela Gheorghiu returned to New York in the first performance of the Opera Orchestra of New York’s Carnegie Hall season. After financial difficulties the company itself has been making a comeback as well, under new musical director Alberto Veronesi. For over 40 years, the group has produced concert performance of lesser-known operas with outstanding casts, and this evening was a fine continuation of that tradition, with strong performances from Jonas Kaufmann, Ambrogio Maestri, and Anita Rachvelishvili in the other major roles.

Francesco Cilèa’s 1902 opera is set in 1730s Paris. The plot, in which Adriana and her tenor boyfriend Maurizio’s other girlfriend fight it out for his affection, features a high number of letters, unexplained political crises, midnight trysts, and, most notoriously, murder with a poisoned bunch of violets. In staged performance it courts both bewilderment and unintentional comedy, but in concert it’s easy to forget the plot holes and wildly implausible twists. The focus shifts to Cilèa’s effusive music, which may lack the originality of Puccini but successfully portrays the vulnerable, sympathetic Adriana and the bustling backstage of her theater and includes some passionate duets for Maurizio and his various paramours. Lines such as “Love is a flame, friendship is its ashes” elicit a smile rather than a groan.

Jonas Kaufman & Angela Gheorghiu © Stephanie Berger
Jonas Kaufman & Angela Gheorghiu
© Stephanie Berger

Gheorghiu is prone to diva antics and fond of indulging in gigantic gestures and outsized reactions. This makes the role of the actress Adriana ideal for her, and she brought tenderness as well as grandeur to the part. But vocally it is an odd choice. The role is prized by older sopranos for its relatively low range while Gheorghiu’s high notes are excellent and her lower register thinner. But her voice has a unique and gorgeous smoky quality and she has a fine sense of the musical line. She needed some time to warm up, sounding underpowered in her opening aria “Io son l’umile ancella,” in which she was often covered by the orchestra. But she seemingly became more involved over the course of the evening and did some truly beautiful singing in the subsequent acts, particularly her tragic Act 4 aria “Poveri fiori.”

She was perhaps encouraged by Kaufmann, with whom she sang the opera last year at London’s Royal Opera House (a performance that will soon be released on DVD). They have excellent chemistry and despite the lack of staging did a good deal of acting. (Would it have killed OONY to get some actual violets, though?) Unlike Gheorghiu, Kaufmann seemed to never look at his score and sang with consistency and power. His dark Germanic tenor and scrupulous attention to musical details (particularly apparent in his slow crescendo through the Act 2 aria “L’anima ho stanca”) distinguishes him from the more Italianate and broadly expressive voices often heard in this repertoire. But his blasted high notes are as thrilling as those of any tenor, and his rather nineteenth-century looks make him a more plausible intersection point for a love triangle than most singers.

The other two principals displayed considerably more direct styles. Ambrogio Maestri was marvelous as the stage manager Michonnet (who also loves Adriana, but in vain because he is an old bass-baritone). Maestri’s voice is very large and warm, and he sang with the idiomatic ease of a native Italian speaker. As the Principessa di Bouillon, who Maurizio claims to be attached to for purely political reasons, newcomer Rachvelishvili was the loudest of a loud cast. At full blast her dark, Slavic mezzo could almost overwhelm the large hall, but unfortunately her high notes were often under pitch. She is definitely a name to watch, however. The large ensemble of theater personalities and the Principessa’s cohort was highlighted by Nicola Pamio’s arch, sweetly sung Abate de Chazeuil and Jennifer Feinstein’s campy but hilarious Dangeville.

Conductor Veronesi sometimes showed a disconnect with the singers, who were positioned well downstage of him and may not have had good visual contact. Gheorghiu in particular seemed to suffer from short breath at a few points and would have benefited from slightly faster tempos. The orchestra, effectively a pickup group, wavered between fine sections and moments of ensemble problems, particularly in the strings. But for the most part things kept moving well enough, and the orchestra did an excellent job with the (dancer-less) ballet music.

Despite some weaknesses it was a moving affair. By the end, Gheorghiu was wearing a low-cut white muumuu with a rhinestone belt and a cape, and yet when she cried “I don’t want to die!” it was surprisingly wrenching. Hazily declaiming lines she has delivered onstage, her death scene was drawn-out but transfixing. Shorn of its wigs, crinolines, and ballets, what remains in a concert Adriana is the strange romance of distilled opera, and when delivered with such enthusiasm it is irresistible.