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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Opera Review: The Queen of Stage

With this superb new Adriana Lecouvereur, the Met finally gets it right.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Anna Netrebko (top) lashes out at her rival in Act III of Adriana Lecouvereur.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2019 The Metropolitan Opera.
Francesco Cilea is remembered for one opera: Adriana Lecouvereur. A frothy combination of backstage infighting and murderous romantic triangle, Adriana is only revived when a star diva decides to take on the steep challenges of the title role. On New Year's Eve 2018, the Metropolitan Opera and Anna Netrebko unveiled their new Adriana in a handsome, traditional production by Sir David McVicar that surrounded the Russian soprano with an all-star cast. Set entirely on a unit stage with a rotating theater-within-a-theater, Sir David solved some of the scenic challenges of this work and did it in a coherent and well-managed manner, just as he has done with so many operas at the Met in this decade.

Musically, Cilea's style falls somewhere between early Puccini and lighter Verdi. Like the latter's Un Ballo in Maschera, this is an adaptation of a Eugene Scribe libretto, and it touches on the same uneasy mix of red-blooded Italian drama and French rococo comedy. The work gets progressively darker over the course of four acts and yet its compact construction and dense plotting make it an engrossing evening. The cause for performing this rare opera was made convincingly by conductor Gianandrea Noseda, who led a vivacious and dramatic performance that captured every subtlety of this remarkable score.

When Anna Netrebko announced three years ago that she would eschew bel canto roles for a heavier repertory and a more demanding slate of Verdi and Puccini works, eyebrows shot up. However, her warm and three-dimensional portrayal of Adriana is another success. The singer was a force from her very first entrance, done with her back to the audience in her character's dressing room. And then that voice opened and appeared, with its chesty, mezzo-like low notes and agility in the upper register. She connected these two sounds with a powerful controlled navigation of the passagio and constantly chose precision over volume.

Not only was Ms. Netrebko playing an historic figure, but one who was also an actress, the principal jewel of the Paris stage in another age. Adriana has to constantly shift gears between the private and public personae, and the singer is called on to deliver spoken dialogue (some of it quotes from the French playwright Jean Racine) in Italian, an unusual feature of this work. She shared a number of duets with the other key characters, and the singers locked in on these with the help of razor-sharp conducting from Gianandrea Noseda. Finally, Ms. Netrebko managed to make the final, extended death scene moving instead of cornball. (La Lecouvereur has the most "refined" end of any opera heroine: she expires slowly after inhaling the scent of a batch of poisoned violets.)

As the Princess, villain of the opera and sender of said flowers, Anita Rachvelishveli was another force. Her arrival jumped the energy of the opera with the second act as the powerful mezzo using her strong but limber voice to express very traditional operatic rage. This  performance was a slow ride toward crazy town. It began with passion and moved inexorably toward homicidal mania. Ms. Rachvelishvili continues to have excellent chemistry with Ms. Netrebko (the two appeared in Aida together earlier this season). Their face-offs in the second and third act were high drama without veering into camp.

Tenor Piotr Beczala played Maurizio, the Saxon prince caught between these two corseted beauties. In a broad-shouldered and full-throated manner, he veered between heroic and bewildered through the opera's convoluted plot. He sang "L'anima lo stanca", his big aria in the second act with power and a bright ringing sound that reminded this listener of the early years of a certain Spanish tenor who now plays baritone roles. His onstage charisma elevated all the scenes he was in, most particularly the tragic finale of the opera where he reveals that it was the Princess, not he who sent Adriana the fatal violets.

The last great performance here was Ambrogio Maestri in the key role of Michonnet, Adriana's friend and backstage mentor. The Italian baritone is a magnetic singer and an impressive stage presence, and he held the sold-out Met in the palm of his hand at the end of the first act. Further support came from Carlo Bosi as the Abbe, the versatile Maurizio Muraro as the Prince and a quartet of four singing actors who (like the commedia dell'arte players in Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos) support Adriana in her hours of personal need. The Met chorus didn't have too much to do in this opera but the ballet corps shone in a lengthy Act III dance sequence that featured the composer writing witty parodies of French baroque music.

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