Thursday, December 01, 2011

Being Angela Gheorghiu

Adriana Lecouvreur - Opera Orchestra of New York, 11/8/2011
Gheorghiu, Kaufmann, Rachvelishvili, Maestri / Veronesi

I had not rushed out this review because, among other things, I'd thought it self-evidently the first great night New Yorkers have had this season. Apparently this sentiment was not universal, but that's opera fans for you.

From audience response in the hall, one might have thought the prime success to be Jonas Kaufmann's. Contra Maury, though, I disagree. Kaufmann -- both in voice and phrasing -- sings in grand fragments that for many (most, perhaps, given his current popularity) suggest, like some ancient ruin, a grander whole than can any full rendition. But it's not a full rendition, and as impressive and impeccable as Kaufmann may be at climaxes and as much as his characteristic persona may bolster this fragmentarily-presented grandeur, Kaufmann frustratingly leaves a lot of musical and expressive possibility on the table.

No, the evening was Angela Gheorghiu's, and thoroughly so. With Gheorghiu -- more than any other singer I can think of -- the process of her art is visible on the very surface. Results vary: where, as in Boheme, simplicity is wanted, it's not really within Gheorghiu's power to deliver. On the other hand, in a more fit part (like Rondine's Magda) Gheorghiu's hyperdeveloped artifice -- and the peculiar form of sincerity with which it fits -- can be near-incomparably rewarding. It doesn't have to be the most elaborate part: layering her high-stakes business into a part can give even the rustic duality of Elisir's lead flirt Adina unexpected and moving depths. But in fact Adriana Lecouvreur is the ideal Gheorghiu part, even more so than Rondine... or at least it was on this occasion.

Gheorghiu and Kaufmann in fact did the piece a year ago in London, to I believe good notices -- though not necessarily so good as to overshadow the cancellation drama associated with the run. Here, at Carnegie Hall, liberated from repetition and staging and all of the machinery of a full opera production in a house, we got face to face with Gheorghiu's full engagement in a role.

Adriana, like Tosca, is a performer, a theater person full of great impractical urges and moods. But unlike Tosca (who is caught in Real Events and does not do well), Adriana lives -- for the duration of the opera -- in a world suited to her character if not her happines: a back- and around-stage world that's all intrigues, rivalries, and passions. In this world she is (and can be without ridiculousness) both naif and intriguer, priestess and victim, exalted and humble. Her apparent rivalry with fellow-actress Duclos turns out to be imagined, but the hidden one with the Princess de Bouillon turns out be real -- and fatal.

It's this rivalry that defines Adriana, and I think attracted Gheorghiu. Love is the prize, but the fight itself is on the social battleground of status. Here Adriana is the underdog: her artistic prowess is acknowledged and gives her a place, but it's a vague, amorphous one, not to be set easily in that world against the grand eminence of the Princess. And yet she wins: humiliating the Princess in the latter's own home and, eventually, getting her high-noble beloved to ask for her hand in marriage outright, political consequences be damned. But then she dies, because one in her position can't have a more-than-transitory victory... or something like that. (It's usually best not to dive too deeply into the "why"s of a Scribe story.)

Gheorghiu, an underdog romantic heroine? One might have struggled to believe it during that London run, not only for her elaborate and visible style but for the obvious worldly superstardom decorating all her appearances. But on this night, in New York, in her first show here after publicly becoming persona non grata at the Met for the second straight administration, one could believe... well, not perhaps that Gheorghiu was today a humble and humble-born servant of the muses with no solid place in the world, but at least that she might sincerely see herself that way, or want to, even as she wove her elaborate magic.

And weave she did, from Adriana's wonderful entrance song, wonderfully presented, to a final-act love duet with Kaufmann so compellingly sincere (on both sides -- in stark contrast to what we saw from Kaufmann on Tuesday) that I wondered if we weren't witnessing something a public really shouldn't. It's for triumphs like this that Gheorghiu's name was made, and will perhaps be remade again here.

*     *     *

Anita Rachvelishvili's retro presence (last seen here in Carmen with Gheorghiu's on-off-and-is-it-on-again-now spouse Roberto Alagna) was an excellent foil as the Princess. The young Georgian mezzo's voice isn't quite settled at the top or bottom extremes, but the sheer consistent weight and texture of the sound and her fiery way with a phrase made her a joy to hear throughout. Also welcome was baritone Ambrogio Maestri: his pleasant sound and humane touch as Adriana's mentor and secret admirer rounded out the show well.

As for the opera, well, it is pretty much nonsensical in its actual turns, but the scenes it provides are all effective and dramatically sensible as they come. Maury's comparison to Gioconda is fair, though a great Adriana -- as here -- provides a unity to the piece that's difficult with the Ponchielli opera.

1 comment:

  1. I don't agree about Kaufmann, but I can understand where you're coming from. This is an excellent description of the work of Angela Gheorghiu.


Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.