United States Cilea, Adriana Lecouvreur: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of The Metropolitan Opera, New York / Gianandrea Noseda (conductor). Broadcast Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera to Everyman Cinema, Chelmsford, Essex, 12.1.2019. (JPr)
Production – Sir David McVicar
Associate director – Justin Way
Set designer – Charles Edwards
Costume designer – Brigitte Reiffenstuel
Lighting designer – Adam Silverman
Choreographer – Andrew George
Adriana Lecouvreur – Anna Netrebko
Princess de Bouillon – Anita Rachvelishvili
Maurizio – Piotr Beczała
The Abbé – Carlo Bosi
Michonnet – Ambrogio Maestri
Prince de Bouillon – Maurizio Muraro
Live in HD Director – Gary Halvorson
Live in HD Host – Matthew Polenzani
A certain sense of repetition is inevitable in my writing when I revisit a production and especially when it is as non-controversial as this one from Sir David McVicar that I have seen a couple of times already. Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur is rarely performed and if it is – or has been – this staging will be familiar to audiences at London’s Covent Garden, Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu, Vienna’s Staatsoper, San Francisco Opera and L’Opéra National de Paris who were all involved in this co-production, alongside the Met.
It is a flawed work with a timeless tale of unrequited love, passion, political ambition, intrigue, deceit, betrayal, jealousy and revenge spread thinly over 2¼ hours of music. It seems impossible to sell tickets for it unless it has a stellar cast with a modern-day diva in the eponymous role as the real-life 18th-century French actress who was regarded as the greatest of her time. She was a friend of Voltaire and had a turbulent love life and a suitably mysterious death. I previously saw Angela Gheorghiu as Adriana when the opera was seen in London and names spoken of in hushed tones during a backstage interval interview were Renata Tebaldi, Montserrat Caballé, and Renata Scotto who Anna Netrebko – widely believed to be the 21st-century’s reigning prima donna – was succeeding at the Met.
The Met had indeed assembled a stunning cast with three charismatic and talented artists (a Russian, Pole and Georgian) at the height of their considerable powers supported by three stalwart Italians. As such it was a totally absorbing evening and something that will live long in my memory. It was all made even more illuminating by Gary Halvorson’s close-up camera work which allowed cinema audiences to appreciate more of nuance in the principal singers’ acting than would have been experienced in the theatre.
Francesco Cilea’s 1902 opera – the third of only five he composed – followed the ‘explosion’ of verismo operas in the late 19th century and is constantly reminding you of something else whether it is Massenet’s Manon, Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana, Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci or any number of Puccini’s operas including his own Manon Lescaut. I cannot seem to find whether Cilea was a Wagnerian but there are enough ‘borrowings’ from the Ring cycle – particularly when the music is not supporting the voices – to suggest he was. When Cilea writes for his soloists he is never content to use a melody – however evocative it may be – just the once but repeats it again and again rather unsubtly as a leitmotif. There are enough longueurs already, but we still get ‘treated’ to the full Act III Judgement of Paris ballet with Andrew George’s fey and mannered quasi-18th-century choreography. Some editing of these pages would have made for a shorter, tighter evening and one that might have benefitted from a single interval rather than two.
The Act I backstage antics at the Comédie Française come from Pagliacci with a hint of Tonio in Michonnet, the stage manager, who is devoted to his ‘diva’. Adriana. She is afflicted by Tosca-like jealousy, that character’s tantrums, as well as, her ideals of living for love and her art. Her rivalry with the Princess de Bouillon for the affections of Maurizio, Count of Saxony, ‘recreates’ the great Aida/Amneris ‘cat fight’ over Radames, even to the point of Adriana exposing her affections by swooning on being told of his supposed death. Adriana’s disgrace, subsequent penury, death and transfiguration comes straight from La traviata – even though her death here is not from consumption but from poisoned violets sent by the Princess, would you believe?
McVicar shows us the artifice of the theatre and those involved in it. Many are ‘big fish in a small pond’ only when performing but insignificant when the lights have gone out and the curtains are closed. (I have witnessed some of the world’s greatest singers – minutes after being lauded for their performance – simply leave through stage doors virtually unrecognised.) Charles Edwards’s sets and Brigitte Reiffensteul’s costumes are exquisitely detailed and during Act I we are backstage in a baroque theatre and – with a bust of Moliere at the edge of the stage – Michonnet gives his commentary from the wings as ‘his’ Adriana performs in Racine’s Bajazet in the background. The set turns around and we see it from the front in Act II as it represents a villa by the Seine; in Act III we are part of the audience and for Act IV we are backstage again with everything as derelict as the 1963 set for Tebaldi’s Adriana Lecouvreur at the Met might appear now.
Maurizio is an unsympathetic part as his character will woo anyone who will be of advantage to him and he realises the error of his ways much too late to save Adriana. The role was first sung by Enrico Caruso who undoubtedly would have had a natural Italianate timbre, but did he sing it as well as Piotr Beczała? We can never know, yet the debonair, often very smiley, Beczała seems to be positioning himself as one of the truly great tenor voices of this – or any – generation. Remarkably the Lohengrin from Bayreuth (click here) can be a wonderfully devil-may-care raffish Errol Flynn-like Maurizio. There were some thrilling top notes and plenty of Beczala’s trademark impeccable phrasing.
Anna Netrebko has been tackling heavier roles recently and her magnificent voice still retains the flexibility and sensitivity for the melting lines of verismo style singing, though hers is now a much darker sound than once it was. She tempered the inclination to sing full volume for every scene and did achieve some lovely floating lines and exquisite pianissimos. Adrianas get little chance to warm up as it is straight into an impassioned opening aria ‘Io son l’umile ancella’ (‘I am the humble servant of the creative spirit’). This showpiece aria (think ‘Vissi d’arte’!) about her being a servant to her dramatic art soared and was splendidly secure. Throughout her performance Netrebko’s voice displayed the consummate artistry we have come to expect from her. All the emoting and doomed-heroine schtick was entirely at the service of the plot and her acting was never less than committed and surprisingly subtle at times.
Despite a range of withering looks at her rival for the affections of Maurizio, Anita Rachvelishvili has a more understated and stoic stage presence than Netrebko. Nevertheless she brought the jealous, possessive Princess to vivid life and their Act III confrontation – after the interminable ballet – was a highlight of this Adriana Lecouvreur. It comes as no surprise that Rachvelishvili and Netrebko were so great as Amneris and Aida when duelling over their man recently at the Met (click here). Rachvelishvili dominated every scene she was in as the Princess, singing with a potent dark sound, supple phrasing and unforced power.
However Netrebko was at her stunning best when it mattered most, in the musically resplendent final act. Adriana believes Maurizio has returned the (now-wilted) violets she once gave him to painfully illustrate how their relationship has died. She takes in any remaining scent the flowers have and sings a tragic aria, ‘Poveri fiori’ (‘Poor flowers’): in fact it was the Princess who sent them, and they were spiked with poison.
The rest of the cast are not given much opportunity to shine but the hulking Ambrogio Maestri engendered tremendous sympathy as Michonnet, a father-figure to Adriana, but someone who adores her and has more than just a ‘paternal’ interest in her. Maurizio Muraro brought gravitas to the Prince who has his own romantic entanglements to sort out and Carlo Bosi was superbly foppish and unctuous as his ‘fixer’ the Abbé.
Without indulging his star singers too much – and as heard through the cinema loudspeakers – Gianandrea Noseda conducted the excellent Met orchestra in an exciting, ravishing, full-bloodied account of a score that I suspect he was not taking too seriously.
It is Act IV that had the most tension as Adriana declares herself to be Melpomene, the Muse of Tragedy, relives her life on the stage and dies in Maurizio’s arms. In a genuine coup de théâtre – that I have remarked on each time I have seen his production – McVicar has his motley troupe of actors walk to the front of ‘their’ stage to pay homage to the passing of the diva. As Hamlet tells us ‘the play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king’.
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