On Saturday afternoon I went to the Met Opera for the second time this month, on this occasion to see the new production of the rarely performed Adriana Lecouvreur, an early twentieth century work by Francesco Cilea. This was actually the first time I'd seen the opera in all the years I've been going to the Met and I found myself looking forward to the performance with great curiosity, even if more for the cast and production than for the music itself.
Cilea was one of those Italian composers, like Leoncavallo and Mascagni, who appeared at the very end of opera's heyday and who was doomed to be remembered for one work only. The world was changing rapidly at the turn of the twentieth century and opera was no longer the vital cultural force it had once been. The outbreak of World War I little more than a decade later would further erode opera's influence and sharply decrease the public's appetite for new works. After 1900, the only major opera composer still active was Puccini. Others, such as Riccardo Zandonai, composer of Francesca da Rimini, who might have picked up Puccini's mantle found the times suddenly inappropriate and their careers cut short. Cilea, who lived to the ripe old age of 84 before dying in 1950, gave up opera entirely after 1906 and devoted the remainder of his life to musical education, first as director of the Conservatorio Vincenzo Bellini and then the Conservatorio San Pietro.
None of this could have been apparent to Cilea in 1902 when Adriana premiered at the Teatro Lirico in Milan. With a libretto by Arturo Colautti that was based on an 1849 play by Eugène Scribe and Ernest Legouvé, Cilea must have congratulated himself on having found the perfect subject. (In fact, three other operas, all of them based on the same play, had already been attempted.) The real life Adrienne Lecouvreur was so a fascinating a figure that embellishment was largely unnecessary. A spirited, free thinking French actress of the eighteenth century, she could well serve as a model for today's independent woman. Her life largely paralleled that of her fictional counterpart even down to her death at the hands of a jealous rival. Far less mannered in her acting style than her contemporaries, she starred in legendary works by Molière, Corneille and Racine and brought to them a new vitality. Nevertheless, she still fit perfectly the part of the tragic operatic heroine who dies for love.
Cilea may not have been a truly great composer, but he certainly knew how to provide singers with wonderful material on which to exercise their voices. Indeed, it is primarily these opportunites for vocal pyrotechnics as well as its highly dramatic plot that have allowed Adriana to keep its place in the repertoire. With the excellent cast on hand Saturday afternoon, the sold out audience was treated to a wealth of riches.
Immediately upon appearing onstage, soprano Anna Netrebko seized the title role with a stunning rendition of Io son l'umile ancella that drew a huge round of applause. That was only the beginning. Throughout the performance she held the audience enraptured not only with her singing but also with her fine acting both in the dramatic recitation from Racine's Phèdre at the end of Act III and in the final death scene in Act IV. She was well accompanied by tenor Piotr Beczała as Maurizio, the role originally performed by Enrico Caruso when the opera premiered at the Met in 1907. Beczała handled masterfully the Act I aria La dolcissima effigie sorridente and then the duet between his character and Adriana that showed genuine chemistry between the two leads. Another Met star, mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili, was thoroughly convincing as the villainous Princess of Bouillon, most notably in Act II when signs of the jealousy between the two women first appear.
Gianandrea Noseda is one of the better conductors on the Met's current roster. In addition to hearing his work at the Met, I've also seen him conduct Verdi's Requiem at the Lincoln Center's Great Performers series and Mahler No. 5 with the Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. At this performance he did justice to the work's verismo style without ever getting in the way of the singers.
Sir David McVicar appears to be the Met's preferred producer these days, and it's an excellent choice. His productions are not only lavish but intelligently directed as well. He did his customary fine job with Adriana whose period sets were designed by Charles Edwards. The excellent production that premiered in 2010 at London's Royal Opera House before traveling to Vienna and from there to the Met had a great part in making this performance such a resounding success. The only weak point was Andrew Georges's uninspired choreography that seemed to go on forever in Act III. Other than that, Adriana Lecouvreur turned out to be for me one of the highlights of the season.