Life upon the talky stage, as Met ushers in new year with Cilea’s “Adriana”

January 04, 2019
By David Wright

Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczała in Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

Whether you consider it justly neglected or an opera for connoisseurs, Francesco Cilea’s rarely-seen Adriana Lecouvreur was an unconventional choice for the Metropolitan Opera’s New Year’s Eve gala Monday night.

Certainly there was the excitement of unveiling a new production by David McVicar, one that emphasized the theatrical milieu of the story, with additional layers of pretense and illusion. Despite the popularity of several of its arias, the work hadn’t been staged at the Met since Maria Guleghina sang the title role in 2009. There have been only three productions of Adriana Lecouvreur at the Met since 1907. 

However, for an Italian opera of the turn-of-the-century verismo era, Adriana is a talky affair, mostly tell and not much show. But then, its title character, the French tragedienne Adrienne Lecouvreur, was in real life one of the great talkers of a talky era, admired by Voltaire and others for her openly emotional, naturalistic acting style.

Lecouvreur was also famous for her class-crossing amours, particularly a long-running affair with the dashing war hero Maurice, Count of Saxony.

From that historical character, Cilea crafted a compelling role for a charismatic soprano, and the Met certainly has one in this show’s star Anna Netrebko, whose buttery voice and sensitive interpretation vividly evoked the legendary actress Monday night.

Her performance, along with those of the reliable tenor Piotr Beczała as Maurizio and the fast-rising mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili as Adriana’s rival the Princess of Bouillon, were reason enough for celebration on this New Year’s Eve.

“Love and strategy!” exclaimed a character in Act II, summing up the opera’s action, such as it was. In this story, set in the era of Les Liasons dangereuses, sex and politics are played for keeps. 

When Adriana discovers her lover in a tryst with the Princess, Maurizio explains that, while he really loves Adriana, his ambition to become king requires that he seduce influential women, and really he’s only doing his job. She buys it, and helps the Princess escape when her husband the Prince shows up.

Clearly, we are not talking Cavalleria rusticana here. The actress later gets her revenge by reciting a speech about infidelity from Racine’s Phèdre with the Princess present. Eventually, however, murderous passions are ignited, and we are in Opera World at last. 

But for the most part, Adriana is a character study, whose arias, handsome as they are, demand not so much lung power as lieder-like interpretation. Most of them end softly, even inconclusively. (That didn’t inhibit the connoisseurs Monday night, who knew exactly when to roar approval.)

Like many tragedies, Adriana could, with a plot change here and an adjustment of tone there, easily have become a comedy. Gianandrea Noseda’s energetic, attentive conducting did full justice to Cilea’s colorful score, not just in its sepulchral moods but during its fizzy evocations of backstage bustle or gossip at a ballet performance.

Soprano Netrebko played Adriana, the cynosure of all eyes, in the modest spirit of her opening aria, in which she responded to praise by declaring herself the “humble servant” of art–that is, until she turned her full diva power on her rival in that Act III speech. (And it was actually a speech, breaking into sung high notes only at the end.)  Netrebko, of course, had the vocal power when needed, but it was her clear pianissimos, floating up to the back row, that were unforgettable.

Tenor Beczała sang the ever-calculating Maurizio with appropriate restraint, but what his arias and duets with Adriana lacked in heedless passion they made up for in full-bodied, clear tone that climbed the pitch ladder with ease.

The striking stage and vocal presence of mezzo-soprano Rachvelishvili as the Princess tended to dominate every scene she was in. Blessed with a strong top and an earthquake of a chest voice, she easily bested Netrebko vocally in the two rivals’ confrontation during the tryst scene.

In a fourth principal role, the world-weary stage manager Michonnet, baritone Ambrogio Maestri was a comfortable, old-shoe presence who might have shown a bit more vocal and acting warmth, given his character’s tender care of Adriana, and his dreams of marrying and settling down with her.

Bass-baritone Maurizio Muraro and tenor Carlo Bosi hit their character marks as, respectively, the stolid yet mischievous Prince of Bouillon and his sidekick the wheedling, lascivious Abbé of Chazeuil.

Costume designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel hit her circa-1730 marks as well, with saturated colors for the nobles and grays for the mere players—except of course for the great Adriana, in her signature Greek-style shift when about to “go on” in Act I, in elegant court attire for her Act III speech, and mourning for Maurizio’s lost love at home in Act IV.

Some kind of stage-within-the-stage, realistic or abstract, was a feature of every act in set designer Charles Edwards’ theatrical metaphor, and lighting designer Adam Silverman gave them numinous highlights and shadows. But Silverman might have come up with a better solution than a general blue wash to indicate darkness when Adriana and the Princess couldn’t “see” each other in the tryst scene.

Choreographer Andrew George mounted “The Judgment of Paris,” the ballet the characters watch in Act III, as a tongue-in-cheek parody of 18th-century noble entertainments. Kfir Danieli danced the title role smartly, throwing in the occasional incongruous bump-and-grind.

No doubt it is the opera’s Act IV that has made it irresistible to star sopranos over the decades, as the title character moves through mourning, elation, despair, and poison-induced hallucinations before expiring in her lover’s arms. On Monday night, gripping pianissimos abounded as Netrebko and the orchestra gave deep expression to Cilea’s luminous final pages.

Adriana Lecouvreur runs through January 26. Jennifer Rowley will sing the title role Jan. 23 and 26.; 212-362-2000.

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