The Deutsche Oper’s concert performances of Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur (probably together with the Staatsoper’s upcoming Walküre with Irène Théorin and René Pape) are seen as the operatic event of this season. Although Cilea is hardly a “superstar” composer, what he might miss in “coolness” has been provided by the casting of Angela Gheorghiu and Jonas Kaufmann in the leading roles. There was not a free seat in the whole house and tickets were practically sold out a week after the box office opening a couple of months ago. I won’t deny that star casting has paid off this evening, but what really made it a special event was the effect of an extraordinary ensemble.
I saw Marco Armiliato conduct Adriana at the Met last year, and found it awkward and unatmospheric. The Deutsche Oper Orchestra, on the other hand, seemed to be having fun with a work that had not been performed in the house for decades. Even in comparison with James Levine’s famous CDs with the Philharmonia Orchestra (so far, probably the only serious “orchestral” performance of this work), the musicians from Berlin gave it the most beautifully rich-toned and full-blooded performance one could think of. Here the Italian conductor seemed at home to produce a most expressive performance that eschewed the kind of vulgarity usually taken for “verismo”.
Angela Gheorghiu is not the lirico spinto one would wish to hear in this part, but that is all I can find fault with in her performance. Her feeling for this music is admirable, her dramatic portrayal is vivid, her ability to evoke glamour is most important in this of all roles, and there still are her floating mezza voce and elegant use of portamento to round it off. A bit more clarity of enunciation would make her performance go beyond touching and stylish, but her declamation of spoken lines was expertly done. Since there is neither a new Renata Tebaldi to provide all the Italian soprano exuberance the role demands nor a new Renata Scotto to get you in the guts as it should, I would say that Gheorghiu could consider herself unrivaled as Adriana these days. In any case, it is most commendable that she could provide both vocal sophistication and variety of interpretation in this difficult role.
As her rival, Anna Smirnova received the most enthusiastic applause in the evening. Her mezzo is alright big and powerful and she proved to be less blunt than I had expected based on my previous experience of her singing. Yet her middle register is still unfocused and her vowels are unclear. Although the Slavonic metallic edge does not suggest patricianship, she had something grand about her and could find some sense of humor in her character.
As expected, Jonas Kaufmann has more than the measure of the role of Maurizio. I would even say that his singing had never sounded as Italianate as it did today. I had found his Cavaradossi too chic for the circumstances, but this evening one could really believe that he hails from somewhere further south than Monaco di Baviera, in spite of the dark tonal quality. The ardor did not stand between him and his customary sensitive use of mezza voce and attention to the text.
Even in such a starry cast, my favourite singer was one member of the ensemble: Markus Brück, who sang an infinitely subtle and intelligent performance as Michonnet. His voice really works beautifully in Italian repertoire, while his natural legato and ability for tonal coloring makes one think of a Mozartian singer. But not mistake my words – the voice is always large, rich and ringing. Minor roles were cast from strength, especially Burkhard Ulrich (the house’s Loge and Mime), here an intelligent and funny Abbé de Choizeul.