“The fat lady sings no more”: inside opera's diva effect

Performances by Angela Gheorghiu and Jonas Kaufmann provide the perfect opportunity to reflect on operatic star power.

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During a trip to Munich over Christmas, I visited the top floor of the Ludwig Beck department store, which houses one of the biggest collections of classical and jazz CDs I have ever seen. As I was leaving, rather poorer after several good finds, I caught sight of a poster showing the latest German classical chart. The German tenor Jonas Kaufmann had an astonishing three albums in the top 20, each featuring a brooding, ­Byronic close-up image of his face.

Many opera devotees will protest that their love of the form is all to do with the singers’ vocal brilliance, but the history of opera superstars suggests otherwise. In the 19th century, the likes of Jenny Lind and Adelina Patti had their own devoted fans; these singers were celebrated for their performances but the public’s fascination with their beauty and private lives eclipsed their musical reputations.

Their modern counterparts – Kaufmann, Roberto Alagna, Renée Fleming, Bryn Terfel, Angela Gheorghiu – have built lucrative personal brands. Looks play a big part: critics increasingly review a singer’s appearance, too, and reports have been circulating for years of sopranos asked to slim down for starring roles. The fat lady sings no more.

Given this, the survival of Francesco Cilea’s frankly underwhelming 1902 opera Adriana Lecouvreur is not that surprising. Adriana, the central character in its baffling and overly elaborate plot, is loosely based on a real-life actress who figured at the Comédie-Française in the 18th century. Many distinguished divas down the decades have starred as the leading lady. In 2010, the Royal Opera House staged Adriana as a vehicle for the Romanian soprano Angela Gheor­ghiu, and she returns in this revival to celebrate the 25th anniversary of her Covent Garden debut.

Gheorghiu is as famous for her long ebony curls, her fractious relations with directors and her tempestuous marriage to the superstar tenor Roberto Alagna as she is for her vocal performances. The couple were the Liz Taylor and Richard Burton of the opera world: newspapers reported on every twist and turn of their lives. Gheorghiu is perfectly cast as the doomed diva Adriana.

David McVicar’s production emphasises the meta nature of this opera – of the star playing a star. The stage is dominated by a vast wooden theatre that rotates, allowing the audience to see what happens both in front of the curtain and backstage. Gheor­ghiu is in her element, delivering a tender and nuanced version of Adriana’s opening aria, “Io son l’umile ancella”, and electrifying the audience with “Poveri fiori” during her bizarre death scene (Adriana dies after smelling a posy of violets that a bitter princess has infused with a mysterious poison).

For the 2010 production, Gheorghiu was joined by Kaufmann in the role of Adriana’s feckless lover, Maurizio, Count of Saxony. The chemistry between the two ­celebrities was palpable and is much missed in this revival (unable to match Gheorghiu for vocal subtlety, the American tenor Brian Jagde roared his arias straight into her face).

Kaufmann was away from the stage for months after he burst a blood vessel in his throat last year, putting his voice at risk. He has returned, tentatively, in the past few weeks, and his recital series at the Barbican was an important test of his vocal condition. The first programme of Schumann, Duparc and Britten songs (4 February) required barely 70 minutes of singing but it also left him with nowhere to hide. His nervousness was evident: he asked the audience to forgive him for using an iPad as an aide-memoire for the lyrics, as he had been away from recitals for “too long”. The crowd, dominated by diehard female fans (“Kaufmanniacs”), applauded him indulgently.

“The world’s greatest tenor”, as he is sometimes labelled, seems to be back on form, though his tone wasn’t always suited to the intimacy of this chamber repertoire. Many of the songs were delivered with an unremarkable, monochrome consistency and several attempts at quieter moments high in his register – as in Schumann’s “Stille Liebe” and “Stille Tränen” – lacked power. However, once he reached the final instalment of Britten’s Seven ­Sonnets of Michelangelo, the charisma reappeared. After a beautiful unaccompanied section at the start of “Spirto ben nato, in cui si specchia e vede”, he rose triumphantly to a brassy, fully operatic climax. Perhaps he isn’t just a pretty face, after all.

“Adriana Lecouvreur” runs until 2 March. For more details, visit: roh.org.uk

Caroline Crampton is a writer and podcaster. She was formerly an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times