Royal Opera House, London WC2; Portsmouth Cathedral
There is a deliciously topical moment in the sensationally lavish new production of Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, which opened to a rapturous reception at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, last week. The hero, Maurizio, Count of Saxony, takes the eponymous heroine in his arms and asks: "Will you take my illustrious name?" Swooning, she replies that together they would be "destined for a throne".
We had wall-to-wall coverage all week of another couple "destined for a throne", who emerged all smiles in a blizzard of flash photography to tell the waiting world of their engagement. Poor Adriana never gets to tell the world anything. Within minutes of Maurizio's proposal, in the best operatic tradition, she lies dying, slain by a jealous rival whose choice of murder weapon – poisoned violets – has to be among the strangest ever devised.
David McVicar's brilliant production of this opera is only the second to be staged at Covent Garden. The last was in 1906, which seems astonishing because while the plot is labyrinthine and the music only occasionally truly stunning, the piece absolutely brims with superb dramatic tension. This is high-octane opera – massive showpiece follows massive showpiece; every gesture, musical and theatrical, is exaggerated, every passion heightened, every grief extreme.
Central to the whole piece is a stage within a stage, a vast, fully operational 18th-century theatre, all pulleys, ropes and deus ex machina. It dominates the action throughout, sometimes alive with light and colour, or, as in the final scene, stripped bare to represent the actress Adriana's renouncement of the greasepaint. Here is the Comédie-Française, where the heroine (a real-life character; the extraordinary plots mirrors much of her own story) no longer seems able to recognise the barriers between artifice and reality.
It's hard to imagine anyone bettering Angela Gheorghiu in this part. Her voice, feather-light and creamy yet with a core of steel, matches the liquid way she moves on stage. She's a natural actress and made the improbable death scene heartbreakingly believable and her signature aria "Poveri fiori" simply unforgettable.
Her lover Maurizio may be a hero of the battlefield but he is eventually won over by the scheming Princesse de Bouillon (fabulously sung by the mezzo Michaela Schuster) despite a fantastically tense scene at the start of Act Two where he tells her he loves another, a scene only matched for sheer histrionics when the princess discovers the identity of her rival – and all operatic hell breaks loose.
A cloudy-voiced start made me fear for tenor-of-the-moment Jonas Kaufmann as Maurizio but he was soon up in the stratosphere, declaring his love for Adriana and in thrilling form in "Il russo Mencikoff".
There is so much to enjoy here: wonderful glimpses backstage in Charles Edwards's glorious period theatre; fabulous costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel; a terrific parody of a supremely camp 18th-century ballet, and a truly affecting performance from Alessandro Corbelli as the stage manager, Michonnet. Mark Elder conducts the Puccini-like score with a theatricality that binds the whole thing together in a richly satisfying, cohesive whole. Don't miss it.
Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, Tarik O'Regan and Stephen Montague are just some of the distinguished composers commissioned by Portsmouth grammar school in a boldly imaginative annual scheme to mark Remembrance Sunday. With the navy at the end of the street, the school has been bound up with things military since its inception in 1732; it is claimed that a higher percentage of former pupils served in the first world war than from any other British school, so it is fitting that it should make a special gesture to remember the fallen. What marks it out is the school's willingness to set its sparkling chamber choir the challenge of performing uncompromisingly modern music to the highest professional standard.
This year they picked the prolific Tansy Davies, who chose the words of Walt Whitman for As with Voices and with Tears, a work for choir, string orchestra and electronics that used the spacious acoustic of Portsmouth Cathedral as an instrument in itself.
Whitman tells a chilling tale of a double grave for a father and son, killed side by side in combat. Davies extracted her music from this moving text using a system that assigned a different pitch to each letter of the alphabet, further moulding or sculpting the notes and enriching the harmonies into tonal clusters, so that the vocal lines are often only a semitone apart – difficult to sing but both arresting and mysterious in effect.
While bells, birdsong and footsteps murmur in and out in electronic interjections, singers and orchestra move as separate flocks on the wing, forming and reforming in large shapes that stream across the desolate landscape of the poem. The young choir sang this haunting, richly textured, mesmerising requiem with a flair and precision way beyond their years under the assured direction of Andrew Cleary in a most remarkable act of remembrance.
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