The Opera Orchestra of New York pulls itself out of a funk with diva-driven B-movie opera ‘Adriana Lecouvreur,’ starring Angela Gheorghiu

Jonas Kaufmann and Angela Gheorghiu. (Stephanie Berger.)
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In the 40-year history of Opera Orchestra of New York, the concert company hasn’t presented a huge number of evenings of high art. Its forte has been fringe repertoire of the bel canto, grand opera and verismo schools featuring divos and especially divas in their unfamiliar aspects, which translates essentially to “stuff they couldn’t talk the Met into.”

Thus, over the years, the OONY audience has heard Placido Domingo in Massenet’s Le Cid, Renée Fleming in stuff like La Dame Blanche and La Straniera, and, more recently, old-school favorites Aprile Millo and Marcello Giordani paired for red-sauce potboiler La Gioconda.

And yet, despite and perhaps because of these limitations, OONY has until recently enjoyed the reputation of a place you have to be. Even handicapped by music director Eve Queler’s desultory conducting and shoddy casting (a star or two surrounded by has-beens and never-will-bes), lightning struck often enough that you didn’t dare miss even the least promising programs.

That reputation took a hit as the company entered the 21st century. By that time, Queler wasn’t attracting the biggest names, who were either getting better offers from the Met or else bigger fees in Europe. The administration of the company always had a mom-and-pop feel: During last season’s concert of the massive Meyerbeer grand opera L’africaine, nobody could tell where the intermission was supposed to fall, and the program was no help, so midway through the show half the audience headed for the exits of Avery Fisher Hall as ushers screamed, “No, no, go back! Go back!” It was like attending a concert on the Titanic.

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And, in fact, OONY did strike an iceberg. The 2008-2009 season collapsed into a single presentation and the following season never materialized. A reorganized company, with Queler kicked upstairs to Laureate status and Alberto Veronesi, a much-recorded Italian maestro, replacing her as music director, launched last fall.

Now, it seems, OONY is returning to its star-driven roots, opening its season last night at Carnegie Hall with superstars Angela Gheorghiu and Jonas Kaufmann in Cilea’s sentimental diva vehicle Adriana Lecouvreur.  The have to be there quotient was boosted to the roof by the fact that this performance would be Gheorghiu’s only New York appearance of the season since she chose not to participate in the Met’s new production of Gounod’s Faust. (It’s in rehearsal now, with Kaufmann in the title role.)

Adriana is a sort of B-movie opera, with one of those plots that it’s more fun to retell than to sit through in the first place. It’s taken from a stage melodrama of the 19th century that was very loosely suggested by the life of the French actress Adrienne Lecouvreur. In typically pre-feminist terms, play and opera make it clear that the successful woman artist must necessarily fail miserably where it really matters, i.e., in relationships with men.

Adriana is secretly dating this simple soldier (as she thinks!) serving under the command of the dashing Count Maurizio of Saxony, who is financing his military adventures in eastern Europe by playing the gigolo with wealthy French ladies of a certain age. Of course it turns out that Adriana’s lover is actually Count Maurizio himself, and, what’s more, he is also involved with the jealous Princess of Bouillon. Anyway, the two women (rivals!) meet briefly in a darkened room as Adriana helps the Princess to avoid being caught in adultery by the Prince.

The Princess repays this favor by mocking the actress at a gala party, ordering her to perform a scene from her repertoire. Adriana recites a scene from Racine’s Phaedra about an unfaithful wife, breaking character like a rococo Patti LuPone and pointing directly to the Princess—oh, it’s a scandal, all right, and the Princess gets her revenge by sending the diva a poisoned bouquet, triggering an act-long death scene complete with hallucinations. (“Away, mortals! I am the Muse of Tragedy!” Adriana cries; even for a diva, some pretty extravagant last words.)

What was great stuff for a play was even better stuff for an opera, even though Francesco Cilea, setting the piece in 1902, chopped up the plot and omitted vital details of exposition to make more room for arias. But the arias are certainly worth the trip, gorgeous in the voice: Tender and wistful for Adriana, passionately molten for Maurizio, smoldering and witchy for the Princess.

In fact, the obscurity and downright absurdity of the plot ups the piece’s camp value, endearing the work to generations of opera queens. So does the tradition that the role of Adriana is generally cast with an over-the-hill diva whose vocal deficiencies have to be papered over by the audience’s memory and good will.

However, this last tradition was not observed last night, because La Gheorghiu is hardly over the hill. In her mid-40s now, she's exotically pretty, with the figure to show off a couple of spectacular concert gowns: A slinky column of iridescent black sequins and a billowy white silk caftan very like Elizabeth Taylor’s wardrobe in Boom! More to the point, perhaps, the voice is in firm fettle for a lyrical soprano who’s been singing for a quarter century.

She never has been a sensitive stylist; her phrasing seems mostly to be made up on the fly based on how big a breath she just took and how a high note sounds when she attacks it. But she does have a different set of virtues. The voice is in itself fascinating, not as intrinsically sweet as, say, Fleming’s or Leontyne Price’s, but more complex, with a smoky quality on the soft high notes that somehow evokes a Proustian sense of regret.

There’s a tiny moment in the second act, when Maurizio has begged Adriana to help an “unknown woman” (the Princess, of course) to escape. The actress hesitates, but her head is no match for her heart. “Sull'onor suo giurò... Egli non sa mentire... La promessa terrò,” she murmurs: “He swore… He would never lie… I will keep my promise.” Her phrase ends on a G-sharp, not a particularly high note, and musically the line is simplicity itself. But Gheorghiu’s singing of that fragment of melody, so delicate and yet complex, seemed to open a window into Adriana’s soul.

This was not a perfect performance. Some of Gheorghiu’s loud high notes were a little flat; but fortunately the score doesn’t call for many. Other times, particularly in the first act, the veiled quality of her voice got so extreme that we got more breath than tone, which meant a lot of people in Carnegie Hall couldn’t hear her at all.  She hardly needs direction or even a production to embody the high-strung, headstrong diva; in fact, she was so jittery, constantly flipping the pages of her music and rearranging stray bits of chiffon, it was sometimes hard to concentrate on what she was doing vocally.

Tenor Kaufmann complemented Gheorghiu superbly, perhaps because he is her artistic antithesis: Intellectual to a fault in his musicianship, crafting every phrase with subtle variations of dynamics and tone color.  It’s fascinating but I think a misplaced effort in the role of Maurizio, which is not really what you’d call deep, emotionally or musically. He really has two speeds only: Trumpeting in triumph (to which challenge Kaufmann rose magnificently, setting the auditorium ringing with his high notes) and murmuring in self-pity. This second mood tempted Kaufmann to croon with a dark, hooded tone perhaps more appropriate for reporting a sighting of the Erlkönig. When the heroine finally expires, Maurizio’s reaction is hardly nuanced: He cries “Morta! Morta!” on a high B natural. Kaufmann chose to decrescendo this note, an astounding technical feat that rang false dramatically, trying to find a depth that doesn’t exist.

This is all relatively small stuff: Gheorghiu and Kaufmann both are A-list singers and they gave world-class performances last night, definitely value for money. Also well above recent OONY standard were Anita Rachvelishvili’s sinfully sumptuous mezzo as the Princess and especially Ambrogio Maestri’s easy, soaring baritone as Michonnet. (Given the generally mediocre level of singers of Scarpia, Amonasro and even Rigoletto at the Met, that company should start knocking on Maestri’s door immediately.)

The real problem with this performance, to be perfectly frank, was Veronesi’s leadership. Queler’s conducting was square and dull, but at least it was mostly straightforward. Veronesi diddles with every phrase, a little faster here, a little slower there, and he indulges that favorite stunt of the pretentious hack, the absurdly attenuated adagio that leaves singers gasping for breath. Even so foolproof a section as the introduction to the final act, a string-dominated instrumental version of Adriana’s aria “Poveri fiori,” Veronesi somehow managed to reduce to the wheezing noise of a cheap squeezebox.

OONY has returned to firm ground, then, but it may not be long before audiences start yelling “Bring back Eve!”