NEW YORK – Like a comet from another era, Adriana Lecouvreur zooms through the Metropolitan Opera repertoire every ten years or so, often leaving operagoers pleasantly puzzled anew over questions with only provisional answers: How could such buoyantly beautiful music go unheard? How could the libretto, upon close inspection, make so little sense? And what happened to composer Francisco Cilea, whose Adriana premiered in 1902 and who lived until 1950 without composing anything else of significance?
When the opera is as strongly cast as the Met’s new production that opened New Year’s Eve – and Anna Netrebko in the title role was only the tip of the iceberg – those questions didn’t arise until after the cheering had died down at the final curtain. So the opera was a success, one recommended not just to opera nerds who have been drumming their fingers for the past decade waiting for the next Adriana, but also to those who feel there’s not nearly enough Puccini in the world – and are willing to suffer some operatic foolishness in the libretto in order to enjoy the distinctive mastery of Cilea (who, by the way, retreated into academia).
Theatrical stereotypes are everywhere. The title character is an 18th-century Parisian actress who actually existed; she was immortalized in a play by Eugène Scribe and Ernest Legouvé on which the opera is based. The stage is populated by theatrical hangers-on and much royalty, both legitimate and otherwise, in this story of actress Adriana risking everything for love but being poisoned by her romantic rival, who happens to be a princess.
Though you’d never say the music has a light touch, it has admirable transparency – one symptom is the plethora of harp writing – that sets the music apart from Italian verismo of the period. Intelligently calculated, over-arching musical ideas deliver the long-term dramatic picture with details that can turn on a dime to meet the libretto’s needs. While some of Verdi’s more primitive operas used plots to create a menu of pleasing music, this is more like a menu of dramatic tropes enabled by disguised identities and secret intentions.
The singing showed Netrebko at her very best. That may sound like strong praise after her highly acclaimed Aida earlier this season. But I wasn’t as pleased with her Verdi performance as some and found that in Adriana, the Netrebko voice fit the vocal lines as if they were tailor-made gowns, and was also as lush as that of Renata Tebaldi, one of the opera’s great champions in generations past. Also, Netrebko’s sense of Old World theatricality, still alive in Russian opera, made sense of potentially melodramatic Sarah Bernhardt moments. The other major artistic benefactor here was conductor Gianandrea Noseda, who shaped the score in ways that even made the opera’s problematically quiet Act IV ending feel extremely effective.
Of course, goosebumps are essential to a viable Adriana performance, and the rest of the cast seemed determined to measure up to each other. At times, the incredibly compelling and lush-voiced Anita Rachvelishvili (the Princess) managed charged dramatic effect that never crossed the line into over-singing. Piotr Beczala showed the spinto-ish role of Mauricio could be convincingly projected by his more lyric tenor. As the long-suffering Michonnet, who secretly loves Adriana, Ambrogio Maestri conveyed the frailty of age without any loss of vocal robustness. He is as much a reason to see this production as Netrebko.
Too much reality on the production side could make the opera wilt. High concept could be the opera’s mortal enemy. David McVicar’s production struck the right 18th-century tone, with muted colors and handsome stylization of the opera’s onstage/backstage world. However, McVicar and set designer Charles Edwards didn’t hesitate to show unvarnished backstage realities, starting with Adriana’s dull brown dressing room devoid of any decoration. Her final-act backstage scene was in a skeletal theater that felt like Violetta’s sickbed in La traviata.
Two missteps temporarily broke the opera’s illusion. The ballet sequence is some of the best music in the score and deserved better than Andrew George’s slapdash choreography, which was mainly 19th-century with a few 18th-century formalities and some sexy, 21st-century grinding. Elsewhere in the production, a bust of what was probably the French playwright Jean Racine sat front and center until comically dragged away. A thoroughly meaningless detail.
One truly interesting idea that runs through the opera – and was underscored by the production – is the social strata of the characters. Adriana plays royalty onstage and often has that regal effect offstage. But her weapons against the world are limited to the rhetorical, and to the psychological impact of the stage illusions she creates. True royalty, such as the Princess, kill people for real, and don’t owe loyalty to anybody. Like Violetta, Adriana has inner nobility that, for lack of any social safety net, has to be its own reward, because it certainly won’t save her outer life. This is the operatic backbone that kept the various theatrical meanderings from ruining the overall trajectory.
Might this mean that this particular Adriana will arrive at the Met more than once a decade? Maybe not. However, this co-production with the Royal Opera House in London, Gran Teatre del Liceu, Wiener Staatsoper, San Francisco Opera, and L’Opéra national de Paris is making the grand tour, hopefully with this cast. As well it should.