Adriana Lecouvreur, Opera Holland Park

Cilea's melodrama of jealous divas and political intrigues

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Adriana Lecouvreur, Opera Holland Park
Peter Auty as Maurizio and Cheryl Barker as Adriana Lecouvreur (photo: Fritz Curzon)
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Francesco Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur is one of opera’s guilty pleasures, a delicious dollop of torrid escapism akin to a holiday page-turner. So where better to encounter it than on a steamy summer’s evening in Holland Park, amidst the peacocks, politicos and retired actresses?

They certainly made an appropriate audience for this bizarre melodrama of jealous divas and political intrigues conjured from real events in the life of an 18th century tragedienne at the Comédie-Française.

Written in 1902, it’s the only opera of Neapolitan Cilea to have survived, and even now has a tenuous place in the repertoire, dismissed as a useful vehicle for sopranos past their prime. This cast and conductor (Manlio Benzi on vivacious form) proved it’s more than that, though David McVicar’s opulent 2010 ROH production starring Gheorghiu and Kaufmann is still, rather unfortunately, vivid in the memories of many.

Here Cheryl Barker as Lecouvreur is a persuasive grand actress, bringing an elegant hauteur to the part, while Tiziana Carraro played her rival the Princesse de Bouillon to the hilt, belting out her numbers with a defiance bordering on high camp. The object of their affections, Maurizio, Count of Saxony, is a duplicitous opportunist: Peter Auty brought plenty of energy to the role, if not a penetrating focus, and succeeded in persuading us that the thoughtless swash-buckler we encounter in Act 1 has suffered by the end of Act IV. Richard Burkhard was in burning voice as the sympathetic stage manager Michonnet, whose love for Adriana goes unnoticed.

Martin Lloyd-Evans’s update of the opera to a 1930s film studio – whether in France or in Hollywood isn’t quite clear – makes some sense. It was at that point that film actresses became the new celebrity goddesses, their love lives the subject of endless speculation. The period also allows for some sinister fascist soldiers to appear at the after-show party, giving grist to Maurizio’s off-stage military adventures. The interior of Adriana’s trailer also makes an ideal frame for the intimate final scenes, when she’s alone with Michonnet. And yet there were moments that jarred too, such as climactic scene in which Adriana recites Phèdre and insults the Princess, which belongs to a loftier milieu and here felt more like a cat fight, or the fact that the Princess is bundled into a broom cupboard at her own party with a table cloth over her head. With doors failing to shut and sets quivering, it suddenly felt like a French farce. Indeed, the plot loses itself at various points as Cilea sliced off scenes in his revisions: we never discover how the Princess aided Maurizio, or the significance of his battles.

The effortlessly seductive Act 3 ballet (given by dancers from English National Ballet) is an intoxicating diversion, but Benzi and the City of London Sinfonia kept recalling us to the tragic undertone of this appealing, perfumed score. Expressive cello solos soothe the dying Adriana, poisoned by her rival, who delivered a touching final aria, over hypnotic, winding strings. Neither Cilea, nor Cheryl Barker, had them weeping in the aisles, but provided a perfect entertainment for this balmy night.

Adriana Lecouvreur plays at Holland Park until Saturday 9 August. Visit: bookings.operahollandpark.com

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