SAN FRANCISCO — Cilea's "Adriana Lecouvreur" is an opera hated by purists and adored by sopranos.
The purists complain about the poverty of melodic invention. Cilea seems content to recycle three sticky melodies for 3 1/2 sticky hours.
The purists also grumble, with obvious justification, about the cheap harmonic devices, the tired and tawdry theatrical effects, the secondhand orchestration, the shallow characterizations, the superabundance of overripe romantic cliches and the long, long stretches of utilitarian busymusic.
The sopranos, on the other hand, find the title role the most grateful of vehicles. It allows them to laugh and cry, to be heroic and pathetic and self-sacrificing, to sing a sentimental hit tune just moments after a grand--and grandly delayed--entrance, to recite the tragic utterances of Phaedra, to luxuriate in amorous gush and, after sniffing poisoned violets, to die a slow and pretty, ultra-operatic death.
It was "Adriana," you may recall, that nearly caused a fatal rift between Renata Tebaldi and Rudolf Bing at the Met. She wanted the opera. He didn't. She won.
The tacky, creeky, old-fashioned production Bing grudgingly gave La Tebaldi in 1961 has seen more action than it deserves. On the opening night of the 1977 season here, it was imported to showcase the passionate heroine of Renata Scotto. This year it returned to serve similarly for Mirella Freni.
Freni comes close to making the preposterous effort worthwhile. Friday night, at the third performance of the season, she acted with total conviction and compelling sincerity. She looked ravishing, whether playing the lofty tragedienne or the wounded sparrow. She flashed humility, tenderness, hauteur, erotic allure, temperament and doomed despair in turn, with disarming directness.
She sang, most of the time, with radiance, amplitude, warmth and arching, long-lined pathos. A stubborn purist might have wished for a floating pianissimo rather than the primitive crescendo she chose for the final ascending phrases of "Io son l'umile ancella." But the frantic Frenicisti stopped the show anyway. Loud or soft, this was her night.
Ermanno Mauro as Adriana's beloved, dashing, tenorial Maurizio sang with clarion fervor and affecting sweetness, as the moment demanded, phrased somewhat clumsily and looked stodgy. Leo Nucci as Adriana's stoic admirer Michonnet contributed a character study of unexpected finesse and, unlike the aging baritones usually cast in this role, sang with freshness and ardor.
Cleopatra Ciurca, the attractive Romanian mezzo-soprano making her debut as Adriana's rival, the Principessa, made the most of remarkably strong, rather hollow-sounding high notes, and the least of breathy, non-chesty low notes. Her histrionic contribution remained modest.
The supporting cast was dominated by Jonathan Green as a very flitty Abbe and Richard Vernon as a properly dignified Prince.
In the pit, Maurizio Arena attended knowingly to Cilea's reflective indulgences and expressive explosions. He also did what could be done with the all-too-generous padding in between.
Lotfi Mansouri, the current stage director, motivated the action deftly and made canny use of cinematic freezes during moments when the principals give vent to their secret emotions. He could not be blamed, of course, for such dramatic detriments as the ancient C. M. Cristini canvases (copies of even more ancient sets by Camillo Paravicini), or Vassili Sulich's balletic nondivertissement depicting the Judgment of Paris.
The three intermissions, not incidentally, lasted nearly as long as the four acts of the opera and in some ways proved more engrossing. Even the magnetism of Mirella Freni can go only so far.