Big things do come in small packages. This old adage was proven correctly with the Riverbend Opera Company’s performance of Adriana Lecouvreur at the Casa Italiana Sociocultural Center. The opera, composed by Fracesco Cilea with a libretto by Arturo Colautti, was based on the 1849 play Adrienne Lecouvreur by Eugène Scribe and Ernest Legouvé. This play, in turn, was based off of the life of Adrienne Lecouvreur, an actress at the Comédie-Français in Paris who died in 1730. In dramatic fashion, the opera takes place during the weeks leading up to her death and depicts the convoluted and vengeful circumstances surrounding it.
Melissa Chavez, who played Lecouvreur, absolutely shined as the lead. She sang her difficult role with apparent ease all while floating around the stage, perfectly capturing the light-hearted, joyful yet confident, self-assured character she played. When she first entered the stage, glamorously gliding down the center aisle towards it, it was immediately apparent that she was going to be the star of the show. Her first aria, Io son l’umile ancello, was simply stunning and set the tone for what was to be an absolutely dazzling performance. Harlie Sponaugle will play the role on June 5th and 12th.
Thomas Beard, who played Michonnet, Adriana’s stage director was sensational. In his aria Ecco il monologo, his baritone soared and quivered perfectly as he sang with the excitement and pain necessary to portray his love for Adriana and the sorrow at the fact that it is an unreturned love. Beard’s performance was extremely emotional. He and Chavez had great chemistry both as fellow actors and as fellow singers. Beard showed the quality of his voice when, at the end of the opera, while consoling Lecouvreur on what she thought was a rejection from her lover, his voice continued to be exquisite even from a slouched, seated position.
The venue was small and the stage not elevated so that the actors were mere feet from the members of the audience. I was initially reprehensive about the size and scope of the space but it ended up being a great, intimate viewing experience. Much of the emotion of the characters could therefore be illustrated through poignant facial expressions rather than the whole body movement necessary in a larger venue. Beard excelled at this as his face was constantly being distorted to show pain, joy, and love. His eyebrows in particular could rival those of Jack Nicholson.
Maurizio, the count with whom Adriana is in love, was played by Nicholas Carrutara. Like Beard, Carrutara’s expressive face was perfect at capturing his many emotions throughout the Opera. This was particularly apparent as he communicated secret messages to Adriana, his love, using facial expressions while his jealous past-lover stood in the same room. In general, his expressive face made the confusion and panic associated with this kind of awkward social encounter palpable. Maurizio is generally a tenor and Carrutara seemed to, at times, struggle with the higher notes in his arias. As he sang long high notes alongside Chavez, he often seemed to be about to run out of steam. He never did, though, and his performance was, overall, solid. Dane Suarez will play the role on June 5th and 13th.
His jealous lover, the Princess de Bouillon, was played by Cynthia Elkins. Further emphasizing the fact that the small, intimate venue was great, Elkin was nearly perfect at showing the anger and jealousy that her character felt. Furthermore, her wondrous soprano voice was beautiful. Elkin’s exciting and resonant performance of her first aria, the dramatic Acerba voluttà…O vagabonda stella, which opened the second act, showed great range. Though she, too, had an expressive face which portrayed her anger and jealousy brilliantly, she seemed uncomfortable on the stage, particularly during that first aria, because her elbows were virtually glued to her body and she stood rigidly. As the opera progressed, she became more fluid and her fight with Adriana at the end of the second act was beautifully acted and sung by both.
The Prince de Bouillon, the man whose love and jealousy of another actress, Duclos, leads to the confusion surrounding Adriana’s death, was played by Elliot Matheny. Matheney’s confident bass was perfect for the role as he exhibited an authority befitting a prince. Matheney took on the role of the prince merely ten days prior to opening night due to a family emergency with the original actor. Consequently, he read his part from a script throughout his role and he often stood off to the side without moving. His performance was very commendable considering the shortened time he had to become familiar with it. Simon Charette will play this role going forward.
The Abbe de Chazeuil, the prince’s sycophantic aid, was played by Jonathan Hoffman. A tenor, Hoffman greatly complemented every singer whom he accompanied and was able to hold his own during his brief solo appearances. He also exhibited great comfort on stage and commitment to his part. Like Beard, he had a vastly expressive face and thus seemed to have really become his role.
Adriana’s fellow actors, Mlle. Jouvenot, Mlle. Dangeville, M. Poisson, and M. Quinault were played by Seana Grace, Ashlyn Mazone, Feliz Polendey, and Ryan Alexander respectively. These four all displayed great charisma as their gossiping and rambunctious intervening were much welcome light-hearted relief during this tragedy.
The orchestra, conducted by Music Director Molly Khatcheressian, consisting of two violinists, one viola-ist, one cellist, and one pianist, was excellent. The lively music kept the opera moving and the audience involved. The dramatic score was upbeat and light-hearted at times and complemented the singing perfectly, almost as if it were a character in of itself.
Of note was John Kirchenbauer’s brief but emotional violin solo as Adriana recited verse at her rival, the princesse’s, request. Anna Kong, the second violinist, Eric Contantino on the viola, Quinton Braswell on the cello, and Ina Mirtcheva, the pianist all had near-perfect performances and the orchestra was a highlight of the production
Stage Director Debbie Grossman was in charge of everything from acting, to set design, to costumes. The acting was good. The set design was incredibly simple. The set included a small screen, a table and chair, and six black cubes. Between each act, the actors would move around these few things to change the setting. This, of course, required a lot of imagination from the audience in order to be able to see the same six boxes as seats backstage at the Comedie-Francais and as chairs at the Prince de Bouillon’s home.
The costumes helped with this. Though these costumes did not signify the year 1730 when the opera takes place, they did make clear the distinction between backstage, where actors were dressed in capes and jewels, and the prince’s home where the characters donned their gowns and tuxedos.
The fact that the venue did not have a raised stage meant that the orchestra could not be directly in front of the stage but instead had to be tucked off to the side. This created a problem as often times, right before actors started singing, they had to awkwardly look off to the right to see the music conductor. Needless to say, it was strange to see Chavez, about to sing her final aria in which she expresses her love for Maurizio and her fear of dying, look away from him and off the stage at the conductor.
I highly recommend that you make the trip to see this beautifully sung performance of Riverbend Opera Company’s performance of Adriana Lecouvreur.
The opera is in Italian with English surtitles.
Running time: Two and a half hours, including a 10-minute intermission.
This performance of Adriana Lecouvreur was performed on Saturday, May 30, 2015 at Opera In Casa Italiana at Holy Rosary Church – 595 Third Street, NW, in Washington, DC. Here is more information on future performances.