No sooner had our heroine succumbed to the scent of a poisoned posy than all the leading ladies received their curtain bouquets. As they soaked up their well-deserved applause the divas could be forgiven for sniffing their blooms more tentatively than usual.
Sniffs of a more lachrymose kind had pervaded the audience throughout Opera Holland Park's enjoyable new staging of Francesco Cilea's one and only operatic success. Adriana Lecouvreur is a very silly story that's been blest with a miraculous score; it's based so loosely on fact that it's almost entirely fictional, therefore it needs to be played with the utmost sincerity in order to work. And so, in Martin Lloyd-Evans's understated production, it is.
At heart it's yet another Italian love triangle (cf. Bellini's Norma, with which Adriana shares OHP's current schedule), although this time the entanglements are complicated. It doesn't help that one pivotal character, Duclos, has a man's name but is in fact a woman; more than that, she never appears. But never mind – all you really need to remember is that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
Adriana Lecouvreur is packed with more irresistible melodies than any operetta, yet it never forgets that it's a tragedy. Conductor Manlio Benzi is a dab hand at this musical idiom (Cilea was an exact contemporary of Puccini, and sounds it) and he drew playing of gut-wrenching beauty from the City of London Sinfonia, who've been on superb form all summer.
The title role is a star vehicle: the character is herself a leading light and she needs a dynamo to convey her theatrical hauteur. Cheryl Barker has both the credentials and the chops: she can convey a ton of emotions at the turn of an eye and her eloquent soprano delivered the goods as well as ever. Barker was more than matched by a vocally resplendent Tiziana Carraro as her nemesis, the Princess of Bouillon – a broth of a woman by nature as well as name, her jealous vitriol boiled down to a lethal concentration.
For all that it has attracted the likes of Bergonzi, Domingo and Jonas Kaufmann, the principal tenor role of Maurizio in Adriana Lecouvreur is not particularly well defined. That and the lolloping plot may account for the opera's comparative rarity in the repertoire. It has immense lyrical beauty, though, and Peter Auty was in golden voice: loved up in ‘La doicissima effigie', heroically restless in ‘L'animo ho stanca'.
More roundedly written are l'Abbé de Chazeuil (the ever-dependable Robert Burt) and the stage manager Michonnet, played in a beautifully measured performance by Richard Burkhard as a quiet victim of unrequited love. Five principal dancers from English National Ballet, unidentified by name in the programme, gave sexily lithe interpretations of James Streeter's elegant choreography during the third-act ballet.
Lloyd-Evans has updated the opera rather fuzzily to an unspecific point in the early twentieth century (albeit in a theatre scattered with up-to-the-minute electronic equipment cases). He may have done so in order to lower the crinoline count; it's hard to see what else is achieved by the decision. He directs his players with visual flair, though, within Jamie Vartan's attractive if wobbly foldaway designs. Ah, but why does he upstage Adriana's look-at-me entrance aria with the rattle of cutlery on crockery? A stagehands' tea-break: really? I know it's Verismo, but this, as the grande dame herself would say, is Theatre.