It's more than a century since Covent Garden last staged Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, and the reason they're doing it now – for astronomical seat prices – is glaringly obvious. This is an opera about celebrity, high style, romance, jealousy, violence, low intrigue, and the precariousness of fame – all the things contemporary media are obsessed with. Its central character was a real historical figure, the charismatic star of the 18th-century Comédie-Française whose tempestuous love-life earned implacable rivals and a murkily mysterious demise.
According to the production team, this show has been expressly designed round the personality of Angela Gheorghiu, its star. Gheorghiu is dream casting for a role which all the great dramatic sopranos – from Joan Sutherland to Renée Fleming – have scrambled to make their own. Her co-star Jonas Kaufmann's role of Adriana's wayward aristocrat-officer lover Maurizio was one which Caruso was the first among leading tenors to appropriate; one of Maurizio's arias was on Placido Domingo's debut recording.
And when these singers first meet amid Charles Edwards's charmingly naturalistic evocation of backstage life at the Comédie-Française, they do seem made for each other. Every moment in this beautiful work is dramatic, here fastidiously conducted by Mark Elder, with peaks of intensity in the set-piece arias. With the first of these – where, Tosca-like, Adriana proclaims herself a chaste servant of art – Gheorghiu reminds us what a consummate artist she is, trading on that complicity she enjoys with her fans. Kaufmann's answering aria finds him muting his characteristically burnished tone with a lovely tenderness.
With the superlative Alessandro Corbelli as Adriana's hopelessly enamoured stage-manager, and mezzo Michaela Schuster making a fine foil as her rival – the aptly-named Princesse de Bouillon – Gheorghiu effortlessly asserts her dominance musically and dramatically. Delivering a speech from Phèdre as a coded humiliation of the princess, she evinces a sulphurous fury. Kaufmann's sound, meanwhile, though not quite that of a young Domingo, becomes more ringingly heroic as the evening goes on.
David McVicar's production is full of clever touches and includes an absolutely exquisite little entr'acte ballet. Its sure arc progresses inexorably from humdrum public reality to a private and tragic apotheosis.
This opera being a lightly fictionalised version of an improbably dramatic life, the dénouement comes when, having sniffed a bunch of poisoned violets sent by her jealous rival, the heroine becomes delirious and starts to relive her greatest stage moments. Gheorghiu's handling of this scene is flawless, her voice soaring and falling back in despair like a wounded bird.
The last thing we hear is Maurizio's grief-stricken cry which – as Kaufmann delivers it, over the sound of a consoling harp – wrings the hearts of all who have stayed the emotional course with this sorely underrated drama. In the pre-cinema Italy of Cilea's day, operas like this would be the regular Saturday night entertainment for rich and poor alike. As the ovation confirmed, it still makes a splendid one today.