How I attended a rehearsal day - Adriana Lecouvreur in Vienna

Have you ever had the feeling that certain things happen for your eyes only? It’s that period when you get totally lost in what you see and hear, when you hold the breath fearing that the precious moment would go away too soon.

I had the opportunity to attend one of the piano/directing rehearsals of Adriana Lecouvreur at the State Opera Vienna. It is the production that was first staged by David McVicar at the Royal Opera House in November 2010. In fact, it’s a coproduction between the Royal Opera House, Liceu Barcelona, Vienna State Opera, Opera National de Paris and San Francisco Opera. This year it will premiere in Vienna.
On a Friday afternoon I entered a world a opera hidden to the public eyes, the laboratory where the essences are put together to reveal the magic on the opening night. There are tens of days like these, hundreds of hours of hard work in different locations, with the cast, the ballet, together or separately.

And this is what I saw, heard and felt, with all my senses at double intensity from my seat very close to the stage.


The set
The entire main venue of the State opera was in dim light, I could see about twenty faces here and there. Probably those who were rehearsing for other productions and decided to take a look during their break. Seeing it empty, the venue is even bigger. The royal red velvet is highlighted by the lamps on the walls. The ring of light on the ceiling is turned off. The stage is lit as for a regular performance. No one speaks with a loud voice for fear of disturbing. There’s a sort of humming, ascending when something exceptional happened on stage.
On some chairs in the front rows there were some scores opened at act three. On the right side of the stage (looking from the venue) there was catwalk connecting the stage with the venue. It was the fastest way for the assisting director, Mr Justin Way (Mr McVicar is not present), chorus conductor or choreographer to get from the stage to the seats.

In the pit, on the right side of the conductor, the staff cleared some space for a Bösendorfer piano. It was surrounded by other chairs put in the regular position for the orchestra to perform in the evening. This was direction rehearsal with piano.

On stage, the set for act three was in place. It’s the stage where Adriana would declaim her monologue. With the stage on stage and about thirty chairs in front of it. I also noticed some pieces from the costumes worn by singers, a hat, a skirt, a sword.

The characters
On stage there’s a lot of activity. Angela Gheorghiu (Adriana Lecouvreur, Massimo Giordano (Maurizio), Roberto Frontali (Michonnet) and Elena Zhidkova (Principessa de Bouillon) were on their places waiting for the conductor to begin the last part of the third act. The ballet dancers were warming up as that was their big moment in the opera. The chorus members were carefully listening to the Justin’s indications. Everyone is wearing street clothes, the rehearsals with costumes are scheduled for the following days. The prompter, in his small pit, was also ready.
In the pit, Evelino Pido, the conductor, was talking to the pianist, setting the starting bar number for this part of the rehearsal
In the venue, there were the choreographer, the chorus master, a young lady taking notes for Justin Way. She was writing fast in her A4 hard cover notebook, not missing any of his words.

The action
Justin came to his place in the venue, he picked up an aisle seat in the third row, right in the middle, with perfect view to the stage. To his right, the chorus master was browsing the score.
Evelino Pido turned the head towards Justin, they both nodded, the conductor announced the bar number and the first words of the libretto to all those on stage, he nodded again to the pianist, and the rehearsal started.

Accompanied by piano only, they started singing, in full voice. I felt no difference from a regular performance. In about three minutes I heard a voice with a genuine British accent: “Hold it! Thank you. Let’s see...”. Then he rushed to the catwalk, burst on stage, and put in place the members of the chorus. He asked some of them to move towards the stage or to step back, gave some short indications to Mr Giordano and Mrs Zhidkova. Then rushed back to his seat and said “ok, thank you! From the beginning, please”. And they all started from the same bar number previously indicated. From my seat I could hear Justin Way talking to the young lady, talking to himself, taking more notes, moving his arms in the air. It was conductor’s turn to stop the music. Apparently, the chorus entered too abruptly on the first notes of their part. “Please, do it like a swing. Piano e dopo mezzo piano. Let’s try”. They tried, also helped by the chorus master who also put something down in his score. The conductor was content and they moved on. The big monologue moment followed. I couldn’t help noticing the admiration in everyone’s eyes when she sung. So powerful her voice, so fiery her eyes. I also saw how often her colleagues asked her different things related to the production. She did the monologue twice and the ballet dancers did their part also twice.

The stage was almost deserted, most of the people were on break. I got closer to the sets, driven by curiosity. Angela came to me, grabbed my hand and took me on top of the stage on stage. "Let me show you the view from up there", she said. On the edge of the stage, about 40 feet high, there was an X. It was the spot where Adriana, led by Michonnet, delivered the monologue. She left me there for a few moments. Oh God, what a feeling, to see in front of you the entire stage and the the huge venue. She put me in the artist's shoes. The feeling that thousands of eyes were looking at you waiting for you to sing perfectly, the heat from tens of spotlights, the smell of the sets, the image of the conductor in the six monitors on the sides of the stage…it was overwhelming. I really don't remember how I got down, probably the same way I went up, holding Angela's hand.

After the interval they did the entire act four. The set changed and I that was a rehearsal also for the stage crew. I heard them talking about moving the stage on stage, about bringing in and taking out the chairs and other props, of how fast the curtain should drop.
As I entered the dark venue I noticed I was the only one left there. The rest of the audience was gone, the chorus master and choreographer were also gone because there are no ballet or chorus moments in the last act, Justin was coming and going. Everything that was about to happen was (or felt like it was) for the only person in the audience, for me.

After Angela finished Poveri fiori and the duet with Massimo Giordano, Justin went on stage again revising some gestures and positions, trying to highlight some others to make the love duet and Adriana’s death more credible. “Massimo, hold her arm, don’t let go. She’s almost dying, don’t move away, she needs to lean on you”. With a gentle, slightly visible smile, Angela listened then went back to her place and they both did the scene again. Sitting down on the stage, very close to the pit as if coordinating the tempo of the music with the movements of the singers to be sure they fit perfectly and give the right amount of emotions, Justin Way was content of the result.

The final step was to rehears Adriana’s death. Angela delivered it with much feeling, accompanied by the piano, then slowly bended her knees and laid down. I still can hear her saying Scostatevi, profani! Melpomene son io! The ecstatic assisting director applauded, then, remembering what he was there for, said “Beautiful, beautiful. But there is a small problem, you three too close to the pit. You’re right in the way of the curtain”. So they did the scene again, paying attention to every detail so everything to be in the right place. In the end, the stage on stage squeaked and slightly turned and the characters paid their last homage to the dying actress. “Bravo! And thank you for being here this afternoon!”, concluded Justin Way.


This is how an outsiders sees a rehearsal. I waited for four days before writing, as it had to be an objective story. On that moment and on the days after I was kept in that beautiful feeling. The excitement of attending the first rehearsal of an opera production, the mind being blown up by every small detail noticed on and off stage, the huge pleasure and honor of actually being there. Thank you very, very much!

Adriana Lecouvreur opens on February 16 at the Vienna State Opera. There are five more performances with the same cast scheduled for February 19, 22 and March 4, 8, 12.

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