Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur at the Met

I feel like Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur is misunderstood. I think, though, the Metropolitan Opera’s new production goes a long way toward clarifying and realizing Cilea’s creative decisions, making what are perceived to be his weaknesses turn out to be more likely his conscious intentions.

Origins first: Adriana Lecouvreur is a bio-op of the famed French actress Adrienne Lecouvreur, who performed with the Comédie Française in Paris. The opera takes place in 1730, the last year of her life; she was thirty eight. The great Voltaire, playwright and liberal philosopher, called himself her “admirer, friend, and lover.” One source says her last performance was in his play Œdipe and she died in his arms a few days later.*

Yes, Adrienne had an intense fling with one Maurice, Comte de Saxe, who, a known womanizer and war hero, had affairs with royalty, notably with the Princess de Bouillon, who has been described as a ‘man eater.’ And yes, Adrienne died on her name day in 1730, but from dysentery, not from sniffing poisoned flowers from a rival or an enemy (though apparently she had many within the theatre). In French society at that time, actresses (actors and opera singers too) were placed not far above the level of beggars and prostitutes. And so Adrienne was forbidden the rites of a Church burial and, one imagines, unceremoniously tossed in an unmarked grave. More on this later.**

Anna Netrebko is Adriana Lecouvreur

ADL_Io son.jpg

The Met’s new Adriana Lecouvreur replaces the 1963 production, which, I’m guessing, is probably the last to go from the dusty days of the Old Met. Happily, as I say, this new one goes the distance to realize the slant of Cilea’s intentions. It’s produced by Sir David McVicar, with sets by Charles Edwards, costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel, and lighting by Alan Silverman. The opera opens back stage at the Comédie Française, where we meet several of the delicious actresses, watch the rivalries play out, witness the lustful Prince de Bouillon and his sidekick, the Abbé de Chazeuil managing their affairs and, of course, meet Michonnet, the stage manager and father figure to his troupe. In mood and exuberance it’s not unlike the opening of Act I of Giordano’s Andrea Chenier or the prologue of Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos. McVicar’s direction gives each character identities through nuances, caresses, poses, fanfares, struts, handwringing, etc. Too busy and frisky to follow, this, but certainly enjoyable enough.

Then emerges Adriana from her dressing room, the structure of which rolls into place without much ado…until she emerges, rehearsing her scene from Racine’s Bajazet. She takes the part of Roxanne; Mille. Duclos, her rival, is also in the play.

Anna Netrebko begins Adriana’s famous signature aria Io son l’umile ancella del Genio creator from a deep vocal place, far below that which one would expect, being familiar with the bright, edgier sounds produced by the likes of Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Magda Olivero, Renata Scotto, or Montserrat Caballé***. Darker voice notwithstanding, Netrebko ultimately shines through the evening, giving a strong performance on all counts. Her duet with tenor Piotr Beczała at his entrance in the first part of the first act is scintillating; her duet with mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili in the second part of that act is hair-raising, and her final scene at the opera’s sad end is quite moving. Brava! Brava!

Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczała in the final scene

Anna Netrebko and Piotr Beczała in the final scene

Piotr Beczała, Maurizio, Comte de Saxe, is in as fine a vocal estate as he was in last season’s stirring Luisa Miller. He and Netrebko are, of course, no strangers so their chemistry is well established. He strikes a handsome stance throughout; his interactions with Adriana and with the Princess are attentive and responsive, communicating volumes.

Adriana gives the Princess dirty looks as Michonnet looks on

Adriana gives the Princess dirty looks as Michonnet looks on

Anita Rachvelishvili, the Princess de Bouillon, has a lush, resonant and penetrating voice that literally fills the House to the rafters, thus complementing the power and dominance of her character. Certainly a force to conjure with. And lastly, Ambrogio Maestri is a steady Michonnet, clear in his affection for Adriana, yet, like Gerard in Andrea Chenier or even Wolfram in Wagner’s Tannhäuser, he must remain her emotional supporter and trusted friend, never her lover. His tenderness toward her in the final scene is touching. Maestri has a commanding voice and stage presence.

Maurizio Muraro sings a solid Prince de Bouillon and Carlo Bosi is the Abbé de Chazeuil, both effective and necessary characterizations to mark out the French aristocracy and the Church. The many other roles, a long list of players and the dancers (in the Judgement of Paris ballet) were a strong part of the evening’s performance.

Backstage in Act I, Scene I: Ambrogio Maestri is Michonnet, surrounded by his troupe

Backstage in Act I, Scene I: Ambrogio Maestri is Michonnet, surrounded by his troupe

Perhaps knowing that singers are energized by wild applause from an audience, conductor Gianandrea Noseda made full stops at the ends of the ‘arias’ or monologues or duets in the longer first act so as to let us vent our excitement and appreciation. Which is fine. He led a most satisfying performance throughout the evening, both in the extraverted sections and those more introverted.

For the most part, McVicar’s production uses a unit set, a hollow cube representing all sides of the stage of the Comédie Française. The proscenium and ceiling are supported by beams, such that whatever the action on stage is taking place, it is visible. At one point in the first scene, Michonnet waxes admiringly about Adriana’s performance on this stage. In this production we also see it unfold. For Mille. Duclos’s villa by the Seine (the second scene), parts of the structure are walled in to create a lavish interior, in Act II (as staged in this production, Act III as written) we witness a frothy entertainment at the Prince de Bouillon’s palace, and in the final Act, we’re backstage again for the Princess’s revenge and Adriana’s death. It is a production that works well: busy, energetic, passionate, ultimately memorable, as the previous one was emphatically none of the above. And, as argued here and more so below, it comes closer to realizing what I perceive to be Cilea’s intentions. Don’t miss it!

Anna

Anna

Photos by: Production by Ken Howard; formal portrait of Anna by Vincent Peters.

Review performance: Tuesday, January 8, 2019, the 76th performance by the Metropolitan Opera.

Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, as written, is in four acts, but performed in three with two intermissions. Acts I and II are combined into two scenes with a long pause for the set change in between, running about an hour and 20 minutes; the running time of the complete performance is about three hours, fifteen minutes.

Adriana Lecouvreur appears on the Met stage again on the afternoon of January 12 and on the evenings of January 16, 19, 23, and 26. For ticket information or to place an order, please call (212) 362-6000 or visit www.metopera.org. Special rates for groups of 10 or more are available by calling (212) 341-5410 or by visiting www.metopera.org/groups.

The Met’s matinee performance of Adriana Lecouvreur on January 12 will be telecast live in HD to theaters worldwide and radio broadcast or streamed via various media. It will also be encored in some locations. Information about HD venues, operas, dates, times, casts, and tickets can be found on the Metropolitan Opera website www.metopera.org. This performance is broadcast on Sirius XM and, locally, the New York metropolitan area, I mean, on WQXR 105.9 FM.

Note local telecast dates: the Quick Center at Fairfield University in Fairfield, CT, will show Adriana Lecouvreur in HD live from the Met stage on January 12 at 1:00 and as an encore at 6:00 p.m. There will be a pre-opera talk at 12:15 p.m. Tickets for these at the Quick Center may be ordered online at www.fairfield.edu/lifeatfairfield/artsminds/quickcenterforthearts or one may call the Quick Center Box Office at 203-254-4010 or 1-877-278-7396.

The Ridgefield Playhouse in Ridgefield, CT, will also telecast Adriana Lecouvreur only as an encore on Sunday, January 13 at 1 p.m. Tickets for this performance @ Ridgefield may be ordered online at www.ridgefieldplayhouse.org or from the box office of the Ridgefield Playhouse at 203-438-5795.

Ample free parking is available at both venues; please check their websites for directions to theaters and suggestions for fine regional dining.

* But before this goes viral, note that the “died in his arms” bit is not corroborated by a larger biography of Voltaire I read recently.

** Okay, now ‘more on this later’: though it’s true that the passionate, signature themes in Adriana Lecouvreur are repeated throughout Cilea’s score without significant variation, it’s also true that these are associated with the highlights of the opera one is most likely to hear, therefore more easy to pick out. The aria Io son l’umile ancella del Genio creator, Adriana’s entrance, is a case in point: years ago, it was the first excerpt of Adriana Lecouvreur I’d heard. Cilea, who? As an aside, tally up how many other operas are known for only one aria or a duet or or an overture.

This evening I was struck by how much care Cilea takes to give musical dimensions to his satellite characters: the theatre troupe, aristocrats, servants, etc., how light, airy and charming the dance music is, and so on. This, I’ll say, suggests that Cilea’s model for the sound and style of Adriana is not that of Puccini or even of Leoncavallo, both his contemporaries, but rather that of Massenet, maybe even Auber. Compare Manon’s tale as set by Massenet in Manon to its setting by Puccini (Manon Lescaut)…or, better yet, compare Auber’s setting of Gustave III ou le Bal masqué, with a libretto by Scribe, to Verdi’s setting of Un Ballo in Maschera to a libretto by Antonio Somma, based on the Scribe original. The latter is Verdi, but the French influence sneaks up: the perky page Oscar is totally ‘French Opera.’ Ever wonder what ‘he’ is doing there?

***Of those mentioned above, all but two sopranos sing Adriana’s aria to me only from recordings. My first Adriana Lecouvreur at the Met starred Montserrat Caballé in February of 1978, followed closely by another in March with Renata Scotto, whose recording of the complete opera with Sherrill Milnes and Plácido Domingo had just been released by Columbia. Also on stage in these were José Carreras as Maurizio and Fiorenza Cossotto as the Princess. Both Adrianas were memorable portrayals and much cherished since, though the emotional temperature was greatly different. I thank my friend RGS for his patience going to hear the opera twice that season with me. Mirella Freni was my Adriana in March of 1994.

Returning to the argument above, Tebaldi’s rendition of the aria, taken from her complete recording from 1962, grabbed my attention and held it. It was part of a three record set of promotional highlights for London Records, a dangerous thing to have around one so suseptable. I remember clearly in spring of 1965 the standees talking about the flap surrounding the ’63 Adriana Lecouvreur production, Tebaldi, her vocal problems, Corelli, the cancellations, the un-nice things said about the whole mess in the press. But I had already missed it (and also would miss the revival at the New Met in 1968-69). The recording of the Met’s 1963 broadcast with Corelli and Tebaldi is instructive, as live performances go. Thank you, Mr. Smith, for my first taste of this! Another great performance is a complete Adriana Lecouvreur from the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam in 1965 with diva Magda Olivero (CDs on the Verona label). She was a close friend of the composer and championed the opera in the post war years.

Enjoy! A tremendous thunder and lightning storm of Wagnerian intensity accompanied my entire drive home, but it could not displace the glow of this evening’s performance.

Happy trails. OM