Cilea Adriana Lecouvreur – ( Via Live relay to British Cinemas)
***** (5 stars)
This rarely-seen opera was performed by a stellar cast demonstrating exactly why it’s such a rarity: you need more than superb voices – magnificent acting and a brilliant ensemble are also mandatory if this piece is to catch fire and not flop embarrassingly, as some Met productions I’ve seen have done.
At its most basic, the story is a battle between two strong women – the eponymous actress and the Princess de Bouillon – in love with the same man – Maurizio, Count of Saxony. Add in the Prince, a philandering husband jealous of his wife and suspecting her of infidelity, Michonnet, the stage manager who silently loves Adriana, and the bickering and gossiping cast of the Comédie Française, and you have the bald outline of the plot of Adriana – but this is to ignore the many subtleties which twist and turn the plot into a kaleidoscope of fluctuating emotions and propel it to its tragic end.
Premiered in 1902, the opera pays homage to the bel canto tradition while also looking forward to verismo but, as conductor Gianandrea Noseda said, not blood and fire verismo but real emotions, with passion tearing people apart. The superb score with its detailed orchestration was brilliantly played by the Met orchestra, painting pictures of the backstage bustle prior to a performance, the joyous outpourings of the happy lovers, the agitation and concealed menace as the plot thickens, and the desolation and doom-laden final act.
Adriana Lecouvreur really existed, as did the Count of Saxony and the Prince and Princess de Bouillon, the former an expert in poisons. Adriana was an actress at the Comédie Française in the 18th century who was particularly noted for her naturalistic acting which contrasted strongly with the artificial style of the time. She really did have an affair with Maurizio, and her sudden death gave rise to rumours that she had been poisoned.
The cast were magnificent. Anna Netrebko was at her diva assoluta best as the actress torn by doubts and fears yet radiant in her love, who rises to the peak of her dramatic powers publicly to scorn her rival for unblushingly carrying on an affair under her husband’s nose. The Princess, Anita Rachvelishvili, was breathtakingly assured in her wealth and power, riven by jealousy of her rival and determined never to give up her lover – a fabulous voice and a commanding personality. Piotr Beczala made Maurizio’s outpourings – romantic, tender, martial, passionate – seem effortless as he trod the tricky path between furthering his ambitions by responding to his patron, the Princess, and wooing the actress who had transformed his life. It was a delight to have three superb Italian character actors in the other principal roles: Carlo Bosi as the scheming, pandering Abbé, Maurizio Muraro as the two-timing but incandescently jealous Prince, and the incomparable Ambrogio Maestri as the silently suffering Michonnet, the stage manager who has loved Adriana and suffered in silence for five years. He gave a master class in subtle, understated acting which cast into strong contrast the impressively dramatic and at times almost histrionic performances all around him.
I’ve loved this opera for years – the delightfully haphazard and seemingly shambolic backstage life in a big theatre, the subtle orchestration, the cleverly atmospheric themes running throughout the score. It was with enormous pleasure that I saw David McVicar’s 18th century box set theatre being moved around the stage during each act – presenting us with the view from backstage, from the wings, and from the audience, being transformed into the Prince’s house in which the after-show party is held and the two women begin to realise that they are rivals], and ending backstage again, in the drabness of the morning. The final tableau in which the whole cast of the Comédie Française came to the footlights to see and salute Adriana’s final, and only too real death scene was a fitting tribute to an evening in which the lines between acting and reality were continually being blurred.
Enrico Caruso sang in the first Met performances of Adriana: Renata Tebaldi, Mirella Freni, Montserrat Caballé and Renata Scotto were all megastars of the Met who triumphed, each in their own way, in this role. Anna Netrebko out-diva’ed the lot of them: but for my money, the greatest performance was that of Ambrogio Maestri as the great-hearted and ultimately disappointed Michonnet. I’m so glad finally to have seen this opera – such a dream team may not be assembled again in my lifetime…