Last week readers got the Herald´s views on the Gheorghiu affair and the announcement that in her place the audience would see and hear Virginia Tola in the four subscription series performances of Francesco Cilea´s "Adriana Lecouvreur", thus starting the operatic season. Good news: it happened and things went well.
But before I go on, noblesse oblige: I am correcting two slips on my preceding article. One: on the seventh paragraph the "mildly positive" review was published on The Guardian, not The Telegraph. And on the final paragraph, it´s the Colón 2018 programming that will be thoroughly analysed, not 2016.
Nowadays opinions are divided about Cilea´s opera: some believe as I do that in spite of its weak libretto the music is too good to be lost (and there are plenty of operas that are saved by the composer and remain in the repertoire); others stress the mediocrity of Arturo Colautti´s adaptation of the French original play by Eugène Scribe and Ernest Legouvé and find it too absurd and kitschy; I partly concur but still I get a lot of pleasure from good performances of it.
Indeed Adrienne Lecouvreur was the great tragedy actress of the Comédie Française during Louis XV´s reign and she was one of the lovers of Maurice, Count of Saxony, who simultaneously had a liaison with the Duchess of Bouillon, whose husband had "la Duclos" as lover. Those were heady days for eroticism in Paris, and although the unpleasant truth is that Adrienne didn´t die by inhaling poisoned flowers sent by her rival (as in the opera) but from dysentery, Maurice was quite a Don Juan, as well as being a brilliant military leader at the service of the King but with the ambition of getting the Baltic Duchy of Kurland, for though he was the son of Frederick August the Strong, elector of Saxony and King of Poland, he couldn´t aspire to succeed his father because he was the result of a morganatic union that barred such a destiny.
For some reason Colautti converts the Bouillons into Prince and Princess but we are not told of where, and also refers to "lire" as currency used in France. There are three subjects in this four-act opera: the quadrangle of lovers and their intrigues; the world of the theatre with five actors counting Adriana, and stage director Michonnet (who also loves Adriana but doesn´t dare to say it); and the military/political ambitions of Maurizio.
Francesco Cilea was born in 1866 and died in 1950. He wrote only five operas and "Adriana Lecouvreur", 1902, is the one that still is staged with some regularity. A very strange thing is happening this week: for the first time in Argentina: another of his operas will be premièred, and in parallel to "Adriana": "L´Arlesiana" (on Daudet´s drama) will be presented at Avellaneda´s Roma Theater this Sunday at 7 pm (during the last century the Colón announced it twice but failed to present it!).
Back to the great tragedienne. Cilea´s music is very well written, melodic and expressive, and in the lighter moments the influence of Verdi´s "Falstaff" is felt. But the arias for Adriana, Maurizio and the Princess are the strong points, as well as the duos of Maurizio and Adriana. Both Adriana and the Princess are dramatically plum roles, particularly in their public confrontation of the Third Act, and the latter´s hate is so strong that she murders Adriana with poisoned violets.
The Colón has given this opera in 1948, 1951, 1987 and 1994, and in recent years Buenos Aires Lírica presented it at the Avenida. Artists like tenors Gigli and Armiliato, soprano Caniglia and mezzo Barbieri showed their mettle. This year´s first cast isn´t starry but they put on a valid show. Tola may lack some volume and theatrical presence but she was always musical and professional, with beautiful pianissimo floated notes; her fine looks also helped. Tenor Leonardo Caimi made an agreeable debut; he phrases well, the voice is fresh and pleasant and he is an adequate actor.
The revelation of the night was Bulgarian mezzo Nadia Krasteva, who has an opulent vocal organ strong both in highs ans lows and acts with intimidating command. Veteran character baritone Alessandro Corbelli is now rather arid in the top range, but compensates with a warm, empathic interpretation of Michonnet. The other powerful singer was bass-baritone Fernando Radó as the Prince, projected with real impact. Sergio Spina found the exact inflexions to convey the malice of the Prince´s sidekick, the dissolute Abbé Chazeuil (character tenor). And the four actor friends were nicely interpreted by Oriana Favaro, Florencia Machado, Fernando Grassi and Patricio Oliveira.
The principals of the well-chosen second cast, which I didn´t see, are Sabrina Cirera, Gustavo López Manzitti, Guadalupe Barrientos and Omar Carrión.
Mario Perusso, now in his late seventies, remains a connoisseur of Puccini and his contemporaries and was in fine form; he obtained very good sound from an alert orchestra and phrased with taste. The Choir under Miguel Martínez did well.
Readers know that I dislike the prevailing trend of changing time and place in opera staging, so I was happy that two longstanding members of Roberto Oswald´s team were in charge. It was the first time that Aníbal Lápiz did not only the costumes but also the stage direction, and he was seconded by Oswald´s collaborator in stage design, Christian Prego. Oswald was a consumate master of lighting design, but Rubén Conde has been chief of lighting technique at the Colón since 1988. So this is a thoroughly professional team, and it showed: we felt in Louis XV´s time and the action was as coherent as the libretto´s flaws permit.
Although Prego´s layout was based on an impressive unit set, he avoided the limitations of the concept by clever disposition of props and colors and especially because perspectives of the changing center provided (far from the proscenium) beautiful and convincing views of the theatre in which Adriana recites or of trees´ branches moved by the wind, or in the party scene at the Prince´s Palace the adequate backup for Lidia Segni´s traditional choreography of mythological Greek-Roman Gods in the Judgment of Pâris (who´s the most beautiful, Hera, Pallas or Aphrodite?; much in vogue during Louis XV´s reign). Three dancers from the Colón Ballet and one hired, plus a supporting hired group, gave a stylised view of the famous tale.
Lápiz showed his expertise on early Eighteenth Century French fashion with lavish and attractive costumes. And Conde´s lighting was always apposite and helpful.
So this "Adriana..." was both watchable and musically good. Not memorable, but certainly not a letdown.
For Buenos Aires Herald