This review is for the performance on Jan. 4, 2019.
They say three times is a charm but in the case of the Metropolitan Opera, it took four tries to finally put on a production worthy of its legendary stature in the opera world.
After three lackluster new productions, the company has finally hit a high note with Sir David McVicar’s 2010 interpretation of Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur,” which originated at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
Stage Within A Stage
For his production, McVicar has set Cilea’s opera within a theater. Each act represents a different part of the building and he begins with the dressing rooms and then moves to show the side of the stage. The second act represents the stage during construction and the third act finally reveals the full stage ready for the performance. Finally, the last act shows us backstage and the lack of glamour in theater.
In many ways, it represents Adriana’s full character development as she is preparing for what is a performance on stage and in real life where she is going to go head to head with her rival before eventually dying for love.
McVicar’s conception of a stage within a stage also deals with the public versus the private persona and brings elements of the aristocracy trying to play a role in society. Maurizio is the playboy who behind the scenes is in love with Adriana but when it comes to being on stage, he follows the Princes de Bouillon’s command. The Princess also plays a role in the proceedings as she herself hides behind the scenes in order not to be exposed. Only when she is out in the public does she obtain an arrogant and defiant air.
Among the many incredible elements that make this almost decade-old production timeless is McVicar and company’s use of lighting, especially during the Act two confrontation. Both women are enshrouded in shadows and thanks to the dark-colored costumes and blue lighting, it is truly credible that neither one can see one another’s faces.
Then there is the Act three ballet. After seeing some questionable ballet choreography choices for recent Met productions, it is refreshing that Andrew George follows Cilea’s music, choreographing his ballet to the rhythms and beats without distraction.
Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes are the newest elements of the production. While the Princess and Maurizio get the original costumes, Adriana Lecouvreur gets new ones created specifically for Anna Netrebko. And Reiffenstuel succeeds in replacing the pastel-colored pinks, yellows, and blues with darker reds, blacks, and golds. The changes are striking as they allowing Netrebko to stand out particularly in the third act with her red and black gown. That color not only allowed Netrebko to be the center of attention during the “Phedre” monologue, but also enhanced the tremendous emotions of jealousy and lust for vengeance in the scene. The black gown at the end is also representative of Adriana’s sadness and impending death.
The production would simply be a lavish set without substance if not for the performers on stage. And McVicar had a cast for the ages.
In the title role, Anna Netrebko was in command of the role dramatically. She came on stage like the diva that Adriana is, flirting with the Prince of Bouillon and owning each part of the scene. There was a theatrical sense to every movement as she dressed for her performance and took on her first aria. But that theatricality left her once she was in the arms of Maurizio. There was ardent passion as she embraced her lover and one got to see her vulnerability.
And that vulnerability grew during the confrontation with the Princess as Adriana realized she was Maurizio’s lover. As the opera moved into the third act, Netrebko’s Adriana became more emotionally exposed as the princess mocked her. While Netrebko’s gestures played up the mockery and sarcasm, there was an eventual breaking point. That was most apparent towards the end of the act when she looked as if she is about to faint on stage as she watched Maurizio kissing the princess’s hand. This Adriana couldn’t keep her composure or her rage for what she saw.
But it was in the last act that Netrebko finally hit her high marks as an actress. She played off the diva elements as she received a necklace from Michonnet as she interacted with her friends. She would take it away from the others and embrace the big gestures and the attention.
Then during “Poveri Fiori,” there was an element of madness as she looked at the violets with chills. That madness only grew toward her death scene as she looked at Maurizio with a haunting stare. In many ways, the theatrical element from the beginning returned as if she was playing an extended death scene in a play. And in her final phrases “Ecco la luce che mi seduce,” Netrebko looked into the audience bringing the character’s theatrical nature to a close. It was a moment of sublime beauty and tragedy.
Vocally Adriana Lecouvreur has numerous challenges for the soprano from dramatic singing to declamation to lyrical passages. It is the ultimate test for a diva and Netrebko was up for the challenge.
While Netrebko started off with several intonation issues in her first aria “Io son l’umile ancella,” that quickly receded as she floated into her higher register and sustained gorgeous pianissimi. In her final line, she began forte before decrescendoing naturally to a sustained piano.
Her subsequent duet with Maurizio saw the soprano bring passion to each phrase from her floated high notes to her full forte sound.
In Act two Netrebko met the challenge of Rachvelishvili’s commanding arsenal with equal strength. Here she brought out her lows with aplomb and her highs were in complete control. In the lines “Io son sua per l‘amor” there was passionate commitment giving the voice roundness that exploded into the audience. Both women’s voices also melted into each other forming gorgeous sounds that complimented each other well. Their fury was also met with the same intensity as they seemingly sought to outmatch one another with intense commitment. There was palpable tension as the two pushed one another to incredible heights, making the rivalry real.
In Act three, Adriana has her famous monologue and is asked to emote throughout two minutes. Netrebko navigated some murky diction that was sometimes difficult to understand but she nevertheless brought an intensity to the monologue. She started with a quiet and vulnerable quality and gaining strength to the end before finally letting a burst of sound and nailing the monologue by pointing towards Rachvelishvili’s princess. I will say, however, that the connection between the lower register and upper register in Netrebko’s tone did feel a bit frail towards the end of the act with a slight but noticeable wobble. This was present in the lines “che mai debba arrossir!” where the sound lacked evenness.
In Act four Netrebko finally got a chance to produce the glorious lyrical lines she has long been known for her. Her “Poveri Fiori” was sung with dramatic force as she connected each line with fluid pianissimi. Each phrase yearned with nostalgia.
Then her opening “non, la mia fronte,” Netrebko took her time extending each line with delicacy and with a gorgeous coloratura line that displayed the flexibility in the soprano’s voice. On the second repeat of the same melody Netrebko took even more liberty extending the high notes, starting out with a piano sound and crescendoing to a forte. It was as if she wanted to hold onto the moment knowing her impending death.
But the most heart wrenching moment of the evening was her delivery of the final phrases. She began with strong declamation “Scostatevi, profani” before turning to the delicate “Ecco la luce che mi seduce.” She began these lines with a gentle legato that slowly turned to more staccato delivery as if she were losing strength before falling to the floor.
Maurizio is a challenging role and one that is sometimes hard to sympathize with. He is a playboy betraying the hopes of an actress in love and the capricious lust of a princess who is used to getting her way.
In the hands of Piotr Beczala, he became a tragic figure. After three acts where he showed his ardent passion and his flirtatious side as well as his masculinity during the robust aria “Il russo mencikoff,” Act four displayed the guilt and the consequences of playing with two scorned women. There was an intense passion as he tried to win back Adriana and in the final lines “Morta,” all the youthfulness that Beczala had displayed in the previous acts waned and what audiences got were cries of despair and tragedy. In many ways, it was the character that had the most development because one was able to see his facets in his brief moments.
Vocally Beczala had a strong night singing with an ardent tone and gleaming high notes. His “La Dolcissima Effigie” began with a restrained sound that quickly exploded into desire as he phrased with a melting youthful timbre. His lines connected with ease and as he climaxed to the upper register the voice boomed. In the subsequent duet with Netrebko, Beczala brought out the full power in his voice, giving a sense of vocal and emotional abandon. Both voices communicated pure passion as their voice rose to the climaxes of Cilea’s music.
His interaction with the Princess in Act two showcased a more playful Maurizio. That was emphasized by the shorter staccato lines as opposed to the lush legato phrasing with Adriana. And in his second aria “L’anima stanca” Beczala gave his voice a darker timbre. However, he struggled with the breath support during the lengthy lines, seemingly pushing forward through them with noticeable discomfort. The aria lost some of its dynamism in the process, though Beczala still managed to communicate sorrow and distress particularly with his lower register.
During the subsequent duet with Adriana, both Netrebko and Beczala displayed undeniable chemistry that turned from playful flirts to uncontrollable passion that was matched by the uncontained forte singing. That same chemistry was displayed in Act four where Beczala matched Netrebko’s lush lines in their duet. He prolonged the lines and gave each note as much space in order to express his love and commitment to her. His declamation of “Io la disprezzo” was emphasized with convincing accents.
An Imposing Force
When Anita Rachvelishvili entered the stage, all eyes were on her. Her opening “Acerba Volutta” was full of power with the booming mezzo projecting full blast. There was anger, power and despair for the tortured Princess. Yet in many ways, Rachvelishvili explored a more intimate realm of the character in the middle of the aria with a mezzo forte sound. It was a brief respite however, as she concluded the aria with an overwhelming fortissimo sound on the final “Amor.”
In her interactions with Piotr Beczala’s Maurizio, one could see Rachvelishvili’s princess as capricious and dominant force. This was best displayed with Rachvelishvili’s emphasis and accents on certain phrases. Then there were her actions as she sat him down and even confronted him about revealing the identity of his lover. It was a moment of pure tension where you knew that this Princess was getting her way. She was in complete control.
In the Act two duet with Adriana, Rachvelishvili showcased restraint as she was interrogating her rival but as the intensity built up so did the voice. The mezzo wielded her voice as a weapon as she confronted Adriana, the sound explosive and the phrasing violent and ardent as she sang the words “egli e il sol che raccende.” Only in the climatic “Mio marito” was there a sense of fear of getting caught.
In Act three, Rachvelishvili was once again in command. From her flirtatious interaction with Carlo Bosi’ Abbe to elegance among the guests, she was once again playing the dignified princess. And in her fierce interactions with Adriana, Rachvelishvili gave an air of sarcasm and wit. With staccato phrases, there was almost a sense that the mezzo was going for more parlando style, providing counterpoint to Adriana’s longer phrases. That was more evident at the end of the Act after the Princess is insulted where Rachvelishvili chose to emote the words “Qual insulto” and “restate.” The latter was more powerful as she yelled it right at Maurizio, a stark reminder of her power over him. She then took Beczala and forced him to kiss her handin front of her rival before commanding him to sit. It was a great climax for the tension that was building throughout the scene.
The Supporting Players
In the role of Michonnet, Ambrogio Maestri showed his Italianate baritone and brought pure emotion to the character. In his aria “Ecco il monologo” one could sense the tenderness and love for Adriana as Maestri caressed each phrase with a gorgeous legato line.
Carlo Bosi’s pointed tenor created comedic timing while Maurizio Muraro, who did the production when it first premiered in 2010, brought a luxurious sound to the Prince. Both exhibited great chemistry in their scenes together.
The quartet of actors sung by Samantha Hankey, Patrick Carfizzi, Sarah Joy Miller, and Tony Stevenson were also enjoyable in their brief scenes, bringing comic timing and thrilling vocal fireworks.
Gianandrea Noseda was the one unsatisfactory note in the entire night. While the conductor did have some moments of brilliance, especially during the ballet where there was an acute sense of contrast in style from the remainder of the work, his conducting seemed to operate on musical extremes of really loud and really soft with little that was discernible in between. To be clear, it’s not that there was no in between, but that nuance was not quite as noticeable. This led to moments where the singers were noticeably overpowered. One such moment was the Act two duet between tenor and soprano and the soprano-mezzo duet. It was frustrating to have to work harder to try and hear such big voices clearlly.
Noseda also engaged the music with faster tempi that seemed to rush the singers at a few moments.
One instance came in Act four during the “No, la mia fronte” where Netrebko and Beczala both seemed rushed and weren’t given the time to expand the melody or the lines. While it is understandable that Noseda was driving the music forward attempting to create tension, there was a sense that some of the expansiveness of certain moments was missing.
All in all, however, this was about the singers and the Metropolitan Opera has put a cast and production together that captivates all across the board. Often, one gets the impression that artists are playing it close to the vest, avoiding vocal risks to deliver pitch perfect and “clean” performances. One cannot begrudge them for such a commitment but it often sounds overly polished and safe. So it is undeniably refreshing to hear artists that have such confidence in their artistry that they are willing to really take those risks and leave the listener engaged because you are constantly wondering what they will offer up next. The results aren’t always immaculate, but they are thrilling.
For what it’s worth, this was, to this point, the best performance I have witnessed at the Met Opera in 2018-19. Nothing else comes close at all.