You can tell that the devasting effects of COVID-19 are not decreasing by the simple fact that you cannot sit even in a donut shop for a coffee. That is a trifle, of course, compared to the number of deaths and illnesses, and the line ups for food banks. Much of civilization is on lockdown and the production of theatre and opera is yet another indicator. New York’s Metropolitan Opera is in its 43rd week of streaming productions old and new every night on television as a diversion. Do the arithmetic.
One of this week’s offerings was Francesco Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur. The opera has many outstanding musical virtues, but it has been largely ignored since its 1902 premiere. Its fortunes seem to have changed significantly when David McVicar directed an outstanding production in 2010. It was a co-production by five major opera companies in London, Barcelona, Vienna, San Francisco and Paris. The production made its way around all of those cities and it reached New York in 2019.
The pick of sopranos sang the role of Adriana with top billing going to Anna Netrebko and Angela Gheorghiu. A diva plays a diva and Cilea has written some stunning music and dramatic scenes for her. I will have something to say about the convoluted plot, but Anna Netrebko who sang the role at the Met showed one more time why she is one of the current supreme sopranos in North America. Gheorghiu has the same status in Europe and one should say no more about the subject lest s/he wants to risk life and limb.
Adriana is a star of the Comédie Française in the 18th century Paris. There is a bust of Moliere centre-stage and she recites lines by Racine to emphasize the milieu and her status. There are huge vocal and acting requirements, and Netrebko takes us through the tortuous plot with its searing emotional demands with aplomb.
Adriana is in love with Maurizio that is sung by tenor Piotr Beczala. He presents the classic image of the operatic tenor. Beczala faces vocal lines that go into the stratosphere, expressions of passion that know no bounds and displays of classic heroic postures that Hollywood swashbucklers would envy. Beczala is in his element and delivers a superb performance.
Mezzo soprano Anita Rachvelishvili gets the juicy role of the baddy Princess of Bouillon. The princess is a fierce-looking, murderous you might say, vindictive and powerful woman. She is in love with the heroic Maurizio and unfaithful to her husband the Prince of Bouillon (Maurizio Muraro). Maurizio (the hero of the opera, not the singer) was in love with her, but now needs her political help and not her love because he has Adriana. Not surprisingly, the Princess hates Adriana. Rachvelishvili’s performance is full of vocal venom and splendor and gives a shatteringly effective and bravura performance.
The most sympathetic character is Michonnet, the stage manager of the theatre who is in love with Adriana. She is young, he is not. She is gorgeous and in love with Maurizio and he falls short in all categories. Baritone Ambrogio Maestri is thoroughly likable as Michonnet and sings marvelously. He is a victim of unrequited love but does not lose his decency and humanity.
The set by Charles Edwards consists mainly of a theatre within a theatre. In the opening of scene, we have backstage pandemonium as the actors rush around getting ready to go on stage. The Prince of Bouillon and his sidekick the Abbé (Carlo Bosi) arrive and try to paw pretty, young actresses. Later we see a ballet on the stage, The Judgment of Paris, choreographed by Andrew George and Adriana performs in front of an “audience.” the costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel are gorgeous. The only exception is Netrebko’s wig which seems to have been designed by a committee trying to make it ugly. They succeeded.
The libretto of Adriana Lecouvreur is by Arturo Colautti based on a play by Eugene Scribe and Ernest Legouvé. Colautti needed an editor with a sharp pencil. Tosca in 1900 showed that there was room for an opera about diva playing a diva. Colautti includes plot twists and extraneous details that make the libretto the problem. Even after repeated viewing of the opera, I have difficulty remembering all the plot for longer than the effects of a large coffee.
Take our hero Maurizio. Adriana thinks he is a lowly officer in the army of the Count of Saxony, and she wants the latter to promote her lover. Well, the lowly officer is in fact the Count and he needs the Princess’s support for his political ambitions and the Prince’s mistress Mlle Duclos is the go-between. The Princess was his mistress, of course, and when he goes to an assignation with her Adriana suspects the worst and is devasted. Oh, yes. Maurizio is the son of the King of Poland and he aspires to the throne, and he is also a war hero and he wants us to know it even if we don’t.
And this is just the beginning. Unfortunately, it can make watching the opera trying. Listen to the music and the singing and follow the the plot as best you can.
The Met Opera Orchestra was conducted by Gianandrea Noseda. McVicar has crafted a superb production and the fine cast delivers a fine night at the opera.
The 2019 production of Adriana Lecouvreur by Francesco Cilea was streamed by the Metropolitan Opera on January 4, 2021. For more information visit: www.metoper.org