ADRIANA LECOUVREUR, Opera Australia with Teatro Comunale di Bologna, Fundación Ópera de Oviedo at the Joan Sutherland Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House, February 20, 22, 25, 28, March 2, 4, 7 2023. Photography by Guy Davies (Natalie Aroyan above and Brendan Irving below), below again: Keith Saunders (Michael Fabiano and Natalie Aroyan)
When the general manager steps on stage before curtain-up, he’s inevitably bringing bad tidings. The opening night audience held its collective breath as he intoned “Unfortunately…” to be followed by the news that superstar soprano Ermonela Jaho was ill and would not be singing the title role. Then he announced that our very much up-and-come Natalie Aroyan would be performing and the mood instantly lightened.
Aroyan has been steadily and without hiccups establishing herself as one of a new generation of Australian stars and her performance on February 20 can only have further cemented her position at the forefront of this rare gang. In a three-hour opera in which she is rarely off-stage, Aroyan sang and acted her way to inevitable death by jealousy and poison with conviction and a voice that becomes more mellow and more powerful with every production – most recently as Odabella in OA’s Attila.
The performance began promisingly – no sign of nerves from the newest diva when she – the revolutionary actress – recited with thrilling command from Racine’s Bajazet. There was no faltering from that moment on. Conductor Leonardo Sini seemed to be well in love with the Opera Australia Orchestra and the musicians with him as they gave Francesco Cilea’s 1902 romantic score a rich and soulful workout.
That the music is so approachable is a blessing as the piece, although loosely based on a true story, is wildly convoluted and Arturo Colautti’s libretto doesn’t help. With her creative team – notably set designer Tiziano Santi, lighting designer Daniele Naldi, and costume designer Claudia Pernigotti – director Rosetta Cucchi has gone a long way toward clarity by placing the four acts across different moments in history. Beginning backstage in a Paris theatre in 1730, the vivacity and colour of the costumes and action are immediately engaging and contextualise place and class.
On to 1860, after the scene is set for unrequited love for Adriana from faithful stage manager Michonnet (Giorgio Cauduro), we learn that she and the Principessa and glorious mezzo (Carmen Topciu) both covet Count Maurizio (in the person of star tenor Michael Fabiano, who can blame them?) Assignations, secret letters, and other suspicious elements mount up.
Politics and power also arise – visibly – in Act 3. Flickering B&W film clips set us in 1930 through video designer Roberto Recchia and a fabled clip of Louie Fuller’s “Serpentine Dance”. It’s then thrillingly brought to life by choreographer Luisa Baldinetti and also leads to a memorable and moving moment when her “wings” tenderly envelop Adriana.
Baldinetti also makes much of the dancers and dance interludes – so often a risible part of old-fashioned operas. Suspended on lengths of scarlet fabric, aerialist Brendan Irving sinuously wraps his limbs and body to rise, fall, pose, and otherwise do vertiginous things that divert briefly from looming tragedy, Act 4, and the tumultuous 1968. Think Prague Spring, Khe Sanh, Baader-Meinhof, Paris student riots, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Bobby Kennedy, and so on.
For Adriana, in Juliette Greco-stylish black in a virtually empty garret, there are also upheavals, disappointments, and betrayals. She has retired from the stage, but happiness evades her. A posy of wilted violets arrives in a small box. Adriana recognises the flowers she once gave to Maurizio. Has he been cruel enough to return them?
Actually no, the Principessa’s hand and a sprinkling of poison are evident. Michonnet comes to comfort Adriana even as she longs for Maurizio and hears him – as if in a dream, but actually and with dramatic effect, just off stage. As the inevitable unfolds and Adriana’s life fades, Aroyan’s command of her music and character in the final aria is heart-rending and the finale of an astonishing performance.
Few on opening night could recall the last time Adriana Lecouvreur was staged in Sydney (three decades ago with Dame Joan?) Most expressed the hope that this production will remain in the repertoire for many more performances. Recommended without reservation.