American audiences are fascinated with the semblance of reality: biopics, reality shows, memoirs, historical fiction novels. We are voracious voyeurs devouring the highly dramatized lives of others, rejoicing in their triumphs and savoring their downfalls. Life’s spontaneities are condensed into a tight script of situations, confrontations, and confessions. If that isn’t the best definition of opera ever contrived, then give me a Katy Perry CD and I’ll retire early! No operatic subgenre depicts reality with as much urgency and raw feeling as verismo! Almost single-handedly represented by Puccini today, verismo is much more than the Italianization of French naturalism. No one can provide insight into this unique genre as eloquently as Aprile Millo, whose performances in this repertoire are nothing short of legendary. “Verismo is often misunderstood today” she begins. “It is a rarified and magnificent journey into dimensions of tremendous expression and emotion. The words are everything, the voice is everything…[It’s purpose is] to mirror and magnify REAL life.” The verismo operas of Puccini, Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Giordano, and Cilèa tell many stories, not just the gritty, everyday lives of the plebian class: 18th century France, the American Wild West, Russian aristocracy, medieval tragedy, and Japanese geisha culture to name a few. What connects them is the musical exemplification of the human experience, specific enough to bring the characters to life and honest enough to be universal.
Francesco Cilèa’s 1902 masterpiece Adriana Lecouvreur is adored by opera enthusiasts but mercilessly belittled by critics. Based on Eugene Scribe’s 1848 play, Adrienne Lecouvreur, the story itself is steeped into mid-nineteenth century romanticism, but Cilèa’s opera extracts the essential elements of the story – jealousy, class conflict, dedication to art, and true love – enlivening them with beautifully scored scenes that flow effortlessly into one another. Where the plot confounds, the music enlightens.
The Opera Orchestra of New York’s Riveting Production
The role of Adriana does not make many demands on the singer; the tessitura is low, the orchestration far from deadly, and the highest note is a B-flat . What is difficult is that Adriana needs to intoxicate the audience with her charm and humility, exuding mystery and divinity. Humility is not in Angela Gheorghiu’s vocabulary, but she is as charismatic, mystical, and magnetic on stage as she is temperamental, elusive, and unreliable off stage. She sings Adriana with a delicacy, passion, and creativity that is singular among opera singers today. While her ethereal floating of the opera’s most famous aria “Io son l’umile ancella” was mesmerizing, her presence and energy during the gorgeous Intermezzo before the confrontation between Adriana and the Principessa which ends Act II, was simply perfect. She stood, motionless, emanating confidence, love, and soul, a woman secure in her lover’s constancy. Gheorghiu is a totally committed artist, and even if this commitment is sprinkled with artifice, it is this now rare brand of completely giving of one’s self to an audience that is demanded by the emotional arc of Adriana Lecouvreur.
Jonas Kaufmann’s performance as Maurizio strongly argues for the re-titling of the opera to Maurizio, Il Conte di Sassonia. Kaufmann has catapulted to success within the past five years, establishing himself as THE tenor of the 21st century. With his sensitive musicianship and peerless pianissimi, Kaufmann reminds us that Maurizio is, after all, an aristocrat. He began Maurizio’s first aria “La dolcissima effigie” with a whispered phrase and endless breath that was both tender and intense in his subtlety. The final scene, which unfolds with effortless beauty and dramatic continuity much to the credit of the opera’s unjustly maligned composer, showed the full range of Kaufmann’s artistry: sensitive phrasing, reckless passion, and an earth-shattering, never-before-heard diminuendo on Maurizio’s final B-flat after Adriana falls victim to the poison violets sent from her rival, the Principessa di Bouillon. Unsurprisingly, the evening’s biggest ovation went to Mr. Kaufmann. At last, we have a true spinto tenor who pairs the magnitude of his voice with the soul of a veritable acting musician.
In the supporting role of Adriana’s stage manager, Michonnet, the baritone Ambrogio Maestri displayed a hefty instrument that was also affective in the role’s more introspective moments, especially in the parlando sections of the aria “Ecco il monologo.” Conversely, the young Georgian mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili was a one-dynamic wonder as the sociopathic Principessa. She impresses with the largesse of her instrument but this fell limp against the unabashed passion of Kaufmann and Gheorghiu. Dramatically, she disappears. She was hesitant to dip into her powerful chest voice during the Principessa’s aria “Acerba voluttà.” Anything above an F was forced and thin. She has the raw talent, but may not possess the necessary training or experience to sustain her career at its current height.
The unsung star of the evening was Alberto Veronesi, The Opera Orchestra of New York’s music director. The conducting of this repertoire requires sharp intuition, absolute command of the orchestra, and well-studied knowledge of the voice. Veronesi possess all of these. Throughout the performance, his attention was on the singers, yielding without hesitation to Gheorghiu’s and Kaufmann’s interpretative licenses. The most beautiful moment of the evening was in the final scene when Adriana says that she was not meant to be the wife of an aristocrat, and Maurizio replies, with the same melody, that she is nobler than any queen. The three collaborators played with text, dynamics, text, phrasing, and momentum to transport the audience into the reality of the opera.
To understand Adriana’s relevance I turn once again to the words of Ms. Millo: “This is reality TV at its best! A woman of great fame and talent in love with a man who wants to be successful and powerful. Jealousy, rejection, fame – all emotions we can easily empathize with. It’s still happening today only, with less beautiful music.” We are bombarded by reality through television and Hollywood films, but the “reality” being sold is a fabrication of the human experience. While the same can be said for opera, OONY’s no-frills, unashamedly human Adriana Lecouvreur, is an intense reflection on love, power, and the transfiguring power of art. Enough of the vapid Kardashian brand of reality. If we are going to seek an escape from reality, why not do it with, as Ms. Millo suggests, beautiful music?
Photos by Stephanie Berger