Montserrat Caballé (Adriana), Scilly Fortunato (Mlle. Jouvenot), Fiorenza Cossotto (La principessa di Bouillon), Nella Verri (Mlle. Dangeville), José Carreras (Maurizio), Piero di Palma (L’abbate di Chazeuil), Pietro di Vietri (Poisson), Attilio d’Orazi (Michonnet), Paolo Mazzotta (Quinault), Ivo Vinco (Il principe di Bouillon) 

NHK Symphony Orchestra, Union of Japan Professional Choruses c. Gianfranco Masini p. Giuseppe de Tomasi d.? video director ? VAI 4435 (147 minutes)

Live performance Sept. 20 1976


Daniela Dessì (Adriana), Adelina Scarabelli (Mlle. Jouvenot), Olga Borodina (La principessa di Bouillon), Annamaria Popescu (Mlle. Dangeville), Sergei Larin (Maurizio), Mario Bolognese (L’abbate di Chazeuil), Ernesto Gavazzi (Poisson), Carlo Guelfi (Michonnet) Marco Camastra (Quinault), Giorgio Giuseppini (Il principe di Bouillon) 

Orchestra e Coro del Teatro alla Scala c. Roberto Rizzi Brignoli p. Lamberto Puggelli d. Paolo Bregni & Luisa Spinatelli video director Lamberto Puggelli Medici Arts 2050098 (139 minutes)

Recorded live January 2000


There is no point in getting snooty about Adriana Lecouvreur, it may be implausible melodrama, but has held the stage for just over one hundred years providing meaty fodder for monstres sacrés of all voice types. Classed as a verismo (realist) opera, which is a dubious appellation for an experience that includes dodgy rococo wigs and death by violets; it is an operatic equivalent of the sort of well made play that migrated from the boards, via opera to celluloid in Hollywood’s golden age. Histrionics aside, it is a fluent, lyrical score that contains numerous plums. It is above all, a diva vehicle.


And that’s the rub – has the loss of a specifically Italianate school of singing, together with today’s less heightened, acting style mean that a work like Adriana can no longer cast its magic?  Are there still operatic performers who can command the grand style that Sarah Bernhardt and Bette Davis did in their respective disciplines? Without such a figure is such a piece valid? In these two performances, separated by a quarter of a century, Adriana stands up pretty well. 


In 1976, Caballé and Cossotto were at their peaks, and Carreras was a starry newcomer, so this televised ad-hoc production from Japan is of interest. The production is basic, a springboard for seasoned stagers to strut their stuff - efficiently for the most part. It is the translation to film that is more problematic. The production favours 1970’s brown hues; the image is grainy and gets extremely indistinct when stage lights are low, so that the nocturnal catfight between Adriana and the Princess that concludes Act Two is hard to see. Camerawork can be baffling: choosing to pan away from Adriana in her great (spoken) monologue from Phedre, a passage where one wants to study a diva in close up and internalize every eyebrow wiggle and lip quiver and clock the reaction her words have on her rival, the Princess de Bouillon.  The final act feels confined, one senses Caballé, a strong presence but not honed as an actress, needs more help in what is a lengthy death scene. Vocally she is in magisterial form, living the text, her timbre, phrasing and armoury of vocal colour can be spine-tingling, her breath-control phenomenal. She is also wayward, indulgent and cavalier with note values, resulting in numerous small wreckages on the journey. Cossotto has slancio in spades, and is a veritable battleaxe of a Princess, more ragôut than Bouillon. Curiously, both ladies can be impassive in close-up – their acting is concentrated mainly in the voice. Carreras is ardent and impassioned, though there are a couple of moments early in the performance where the bleating quality that overshadows his vocal production in later years is presaged: by the end we have been treated to a feast of tenorial ardour, with some ravishing pianissimi. He looks youthful, is spared a wig, but cuts an incongruous figure between two such formidable ladies, more the object of a custody battle than a love triangle. The most nuanced acting performance comes from Attilio d’Orazi’s Michonnet; a role that comes into its own when the opera is seen rather than heard, as his music does not have much profile. Basile instills a keen sense of style to his Japanese forces:  all in all, given the feast of vocal acting and visual limitations (including Japanese subtitles embedded on the original print over which a variety of subtitles can be selected – hard on the eyes) I think I would have got just as much, if not more, from of this performance with my eyes shut. The performance has been available on CD on various labels. The stereo sound is full and generous – far more evolved than the visuals.


Fast-forward to 2000, and it seems that a clean-up operation has been applied to Cilea’s score: Roberto Rizzi Brignoli’s approach is spry and crisp and though his singers do not have the grand style of the above veterans, they are disciplined and tend to follow the letter of the score, reflected in considerable reduction in timing. Shorn of its most histrionic performance accretions, the score is revealed as more soft-centred than other products of the same period of Italian opera. Cilea’s strongest suit was an individual melancholic vein that informs the two famous soprano set pieces and the bewitching duet of reunion in Act 4, which is a little masterpiece of melodic construction. The production is conservative, visually rather beautiful, and with many moments of detail and insight, aided by video direction that is musically and dramatically attuned. For Michonnet’s ‘Ecco il monologo’ in Act 1, we get a visual correlative to his description of Adriana’s great speech, and the death scene is given theatrical frisson by Adriana singing her farewell to life and art to a suddenly revealed empty theatre. Olga Borodina is a beguiling Princess, far more feminine than Cossotto; she cannot match her in pointing the text, but sings with fervour and glamour. Sergei Larin phrases well, but lacks squillo; he cuts a stolid figure on stage and is defeated by a silly wig. Carlo Guelfi gives a detailed performance as an unassertive, lovelorn Michonnet, but is outclassed by d’Orazi, who is more touching. Daniela Dessì is adept at suggesting an insecure young actress out of her depth in court intrigue, a nicety often forgotten when the opera degenerates into a diva contest. She gives a markedly restrained performance: her voice has an appealing wiry timbre that can suggest real depth of emotion, without leaving an indelible stamp on phrases like many of her illustrious predecessors have.


The big question here is whether opera, or more particularly opera for home consumption is an aural or visual medium. My impulse for the older performance was to fast-forward through the in-between bits, as they are hard to watch. The later version is a more organic and involving narrative, though the singing does not always compare. All in all these two performances reveal just how much has been lost – and gained – over the last twenty-five years. 


© Julian Grant 2008