Cilea: Adriana Lecouvreur

Chelsea Opera Group

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, 16 February 2009 4 stars

Nelly MiricioiuThe reputation of Francesco Cilea (1866-1950) would probably be somewhat less hazy were it not for the meteoric rise of his close contemporary, Giacomo Puccini, whose operas continue to have a stranglehold over the repertoire. Cilea's achievements as an opera composer are in fact scarcely less significant, as the Chelsea Opera Group's absorbing concert performance proved, and on top of his theatrical success he served as director of the Naples Conservatory, as well as holding a professorship at the Royal musical Institute in Florence – the kind of public post which Puccini tended to eschew. Though Cilea's other operas have pretty much died the death, Adriana Lecouvreur remains just within the margins of the repertoire: on top of a current Metropolitan Opera revival, which stars Placido Domingo and Maria Guleghina, the Royal Opera plans a new production next season with Angela Gheorghiu.

This performance by the COG, therefore, served as a brilliant preview for what's to come to Covent Garden in the near future, and while the limitations of the chorus and orchestra as ever left something to be desired in terms of refinement, the overwhelming enthusiasm of the ensemble made for a compelling performance.

It certainly helped that the four principal singers were all of particularly high quality, albeit in different ways. Heading the cast was Romanian soprano Nelly Miricioiu, a COG regular who made a deep impression in last year's presentation of the 1847 version of Verdi's Macbeth. If anything, she was even better here in the title role of Adriana, which calls for a mixture of pathos and grandeur. I was not prepared for quite so impressive a rendition of 'Io son l'umile ancella', Adriana's entrance aria; Miricioiu arrived onstage completely warmed up and floated her notes with impeccable intonation. Performing from memory, she engaged with every line of text on a micro level, and if occasionally the lower-lying passages were less powerful, the upper register is in remarkable condition. Ideally cast opposite her was Rosalind Plowright as the Princesse de Bouillon, a performance of gripping intensity in which the character's extreme jealousy was powerfully conveyed via a voice still capable of both deep expression and strong projection even over a large orchestral palette.

Rosalind PlowrightVocally, the most fresh performance came from Peter Auty, whose development into the heftier tenor repertoire continues apace, as his assumption of the role of Maurizio proved. At times he was a little score-bound and was slightly awkward when responding to Miricioiu's avid dramatic performance, but the shaping of the vocal line was excellent, filling the Queen Elizabeth Hall with apparent ease during his set pieces and singing with Italianate tone throughout. Also very good was Craig Smith in the character of Micchonet, the stage director of the Comedie Francaise where Adriana is the lead actress. Smith's dignified performance was complemented by clarity of diction and an evenness of vocal production, while his powerful projection made him the centre of attention during many scenes. The way he conveyed Michonnet's tender devotion to Adriana was also poignantly done.

One important facet of Adriana Lecouvreur is the presence of the works of Racine, which are performed in two of the opera's four acts and give rise to a certain classicism in the score. Four of the minor characters are actors at the theatre, and they were performed with enthusiasm, if not overwhelming vocal ability, by Victoria Joyce (Mlle Jouvenot), Hubert Francis (Poisson), Alison Kettlewell (Mlle Dangeville) and Simon Lobelson (Quinault). Daniel Grice was strong as the Prince de Bouillon, and the cast was completed by Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks as the Abbe de Chazeuil and Simon Bainbridge as the Major-Domo.

All credit to Andrew Greenwood for conducting with such passion and verve: the way he led the performance on a seamless journey through each act was one of the key reasons for its success. The choral and orchestral performances had their rough patches, especially with exposed soprano and violin lines, but tremendous brass playing and an overwhelming level of excitement during the tutti passages made this a great occasion. The group's next performance – the original version of Simon Boccanegra – is hotly anticipated.

By Dominic McHugh

Simon Boccanegra (1857) will be performed by the Chelsea Opera Group on 7 June at 6.30pm at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Photos: Nelly Miricioiu (top), Rosalind Plowright (bottom)

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