According to the Princess of Bouillon, this is how Adriana Lecouvreur’s voice is supposed to sound and, well, I must confess that this is probably the best description of Maria Guleghina’s big, ungainly and intense soprano. Before she could open her mouth in this run of performances of the most “telefono bianco” of Italian operas, Guleghina has been blacklisted by many opera-goers who somehow are right to expect more vocal glamour in a role which was a sort of calling card for Renata Tebaldi. That said (and I know I’ll be thrown tomatoes at for saying this), this Ukranian soprano is an acquired taste I have ultimately learned to acquire. In an age of pasteurised expression, narcisism and cold professionalism in opera, it is refreshing to see someone who is really giving it all and who seems to be actually having fun and wishing that we have fun too. Now that the tomatoes have been thrown, I can also say that I perfectly understand whoever feels discouraged by Guleghina’s singing – she is irritatingly uneven. In one moment, she is really close to the ideal just to spoil the whole thing, with sour, metallic and overvibrant singing. But once you realise that she is the sort of artist who gets so carried away by situations that it is impossible to maintain polish, you start to “get” her. There are singers who are just sloppy, but Guleghina is not that – she is a trouper and wants to do it all. She wants to offer you pianissimi worthy of Caballé, the intensity of a Scotto, the touching morbidezza of a Freni, the warmth and power of a Tebaldi, but all that at the same time and is unvariably caught short by the fact that the absolute soprano is a myth.
Back to Cilea. The mention of these illustrious Adrianas is not accidental – at moments you could almost guess that Guleghina has carefully studied what her forerunners have done in this role – Scotto and Freni are almost a 100% certainty. And the hardwork has paid off – her ability to produce a girly, vulnerable, touching sound in lyrical and conversational passages were a definite asset of this performance. Her strong speaking voice and viable declamation of italianized Racine (praiseworthy for someone born so far away from Italy) also carried her in the difficult closing of act III. However, both arias caught her short in flowing legato and command of low register. The results were rather tentative then. Not the final duet with Maurizio – a sour top note apart, it was sung with depths of feeling and sense of line.
Although Olga Borodina’s mezzo no longer counts with the firm powerful top notes that seemed to reserve a place in the dramatic repertoire for her, she still has everything else – her voice is at once generous, warm and formidable. As many other singers, she could not find any depth in her Principessa di Bouillon, but embraced the virago cliché with enthusiasm.
Before you ask me how Plácido Domingo was in this role in which he was first seen at the Met forty years ago, I deliberately chose to see Marcello Giordani instead. Everybody takes Giordani for granted, but – believe me – he will be sorely missed when he retires. At the moment, I believe that no-one tackles the lirico spinto repertoire as consistently and efficiently as he dones. And before you ask me what lies beyond mere efficiency, I answer you that Sicilians do not need to practice on passion, they have it on their blood. As expected, Giordani was an exemplary Maurizio – the voice is natural, the top notes are firm, his phrasing is elegant, his delivery of the Italian text is crispy and his approach is no-nonsense. In act III, when he offered his best singing, he shaded his voice with no hint of effort and proved that you may still do sobbing provided you know how to do it.
Last but not least, Roberto Frontali was a firm-toned, congenial Michonnet. Among the minor roles, Bernard Fitch should be singled out for his animation. The casting for the Comédie characters could have involved more focused voices – as it was, they could barely pierce through the orchestra. In that sense, conductor Marco Armiliato could not be accused of drowning his singers, but he could not do that without avoiding a muffled quality. Cilea’s coloristic orchestration sometimes sounded simply disjointed and atmosphere was sorely missing. This is not a score that has received the attention of great conductors, but I am sure that there are hidden jewels there to be found – you just have to sample James Levine’s CDs with Renata Scotto to hear that.
When it comes to the revival of the Met’s old production, I seriously don’t know what to say – I understand that this is an opera for which it cannot be considered justified to spend lots of money with, but one expects to see something more artistic in an opera house of this level of importance. I am not saying that this should be a richer production, but only that some creative mind had spent a bit of its time on it. As it is, if you have asked my cleaning lady to stage an opera in France a long time ago, the results would have been more or less the same. No offense to my cleaning lady, but I am sure that the guys who were responsible for the revival at the Met were far more richly paid than her. Even Mark Lamos’s stage direction was bureacratic and insistent on effects that ultimately did not work.