NEW YORK — Backstage at the Comédie-Française in the Paris of 1730, the title character of Francesco Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur,” a leading actress with the company, demurs when hailed by a prince and an abbé as a muse, a goddess, a siren.
No, Adriana answers in the short, soaring aria “Io son l’umile ancella.” She is a humble maidservant of the creative spirit who provides the words, the delicate instrument that serves the creator’s hand.
Actually, Cilea created this 1902 opera as a surefire vehicle for a prima donna, so it’s always hard to take Adriana’s words seriously when a soprano sings them. But Monday at the Metropolitan Opera’s New Year’s Eve gala premiere of a new production of “Adriana,” Anna Netrebko turned this aria into the aching expression of a woman who triumphs on the stage but muddles through life.
When we meet her she is hopelessly in love with a dashing young man, Maurizio, whom she believes to be an ensign to a count. (He actually is the Count of Saxony.) But even before we see the lovers together, Netrebko, for all the charisma and allure she conveyed with her glamorous presence and her plush, intensely beautiful singing, suggested how uncertain Adriana feels. Emphasizing three crucial words, she sang that her life is quiet, happy and terrible. Terrible? Yes, in a way. You believed that this artist, who constantly re-creates herself in public, would in life be all too vulnerable to the jealousies of rivals, the fawning of admirers, and the passions of a hotheaded, prevaricating young man.
Also, the truth is that for all the lyrical richness, melodramatic fervor and stylish evocations of Parisian courtly and theatrical life in 1730, this opera, the only one by Cilea that turns up now and then in production, needs all the help it can get from artists of Netrebko’s stature. It’s a good and effective, but not great, work. The light touch that Cilea brings to bear, while preventing the drama from slipping into mawkish excess, sometimes feels musically thin.
“Adriana” must have a superior cast and conductor to succeed. The Met is providing that and more with this David McVicar staging, which replaces the musty 1963 production created for Renata Tebaldi. Tenor Piotr Beczala, singing with youthful fervor, ardent lyricism and clarion top notes, is ideal as impetuous Maurizio. While suggesting how smitten he is by Adriana, he comes across as a young man on the move. With his royal position looking risky, he proves himself through military exploits. But we learn that he is also disentangling himself from an advantageous liaison with the married Princess of Bouillon, who refuses to let him go.
As the princess, mezzo-soprano Anita Rachvelishvili, who almost stole the show singing Amneris to Netrebko’s Aida this fall, was again stupendous. She sang with unforced power and rich colorings throughout the wide range of her voice, from chesty low tones to gleaming top notes. Yet in conveying this imposing princess’s inner emotional fragility, Rachvelishvili shaped crucial phrases with supple, yearning tenderness. For all the convoluted strands of this story, “Adriana” is at its core a torturous love triangle. Netrebko, Beczala and Rachvelishvili claimed those roles so tenaciously that the drama bristled with passion and danger.
That these performances made “Adriana” seem more musically substantial than usual was also thanks to the insightful conducting of Gianandrea Noseda. Cilea emerged during a period in Italian opera, dominated by Puccini, when the public could not get enough of hot-blooded, verismo (essentially true to life) music dramas. When it comes to harmonic daring and subtle manipulations of melodic motifs, Cilea was no Puccini. But without pumping up or milking the music in any way, Noseda led a vigorous, exacting and pulsing performance, drawing out inner details and lending lightness, with a mordant touch, to the many scenes of backstage bustle and frivolity at the company where Adriana is a star.
The opera inhabits a realm similar to the 1980s play, and later film, “Dangerous Liaisons,” which shows 18th-century courtly French life as a game of sexual adventure and humiliation. In this Met production (involving five other companies and introduced at Covent Garden in London in 2010), McVicar puts the focus on the backstage hubbub of the theater troupe as much as possible. A rotating replica of a Baroque theater (a dominant element of Charles Edwards’ set) reveals the actors and dancers readying themselves in cluttered dressing rooms, then spins around to show us the performance as viewed from the wings. The costumes (by Brigitte Reiffenstuel) are also true to the styles of the period. In these days when updated settings are commonplace, McVicar’s choice to maintain the original setting might seem safe. But by telling the story with such attention to period detail he emphasized the opera’s intertwining of political and sexual intrigue.
The entire cast was excellent, especially baritone Ambrogio Maestri as Michonnet, stage manager of the company, who pines for Adriana. With his formidable voice and hulking physique, Maestri was in his element bellowing commands at his troupe, which made the moments when he is awkward with affection for Adriana almost heartbreaking. Other standouts were Maurizio Muraro as the Prince of Bouillon, who hardly cares about his wife’s infidelities and is carrying on his own affair with Adriana’s rival in the theater company, and Carlo Bosi as wily Abbé of Chazeuil.
The strongest scenes in the opera, involving the three principals, leapt off the stage Monday, especially the confrontation between Adriana and the princess in Act 2, when they discover that they both love Maurizio. Netrebko and Rachvelishvili sang ferociously as they hurled accusatory phrases at each other. Yet each found moments in the music to suggest the womanly longing that consumes them.
Since the spring of 2018, Netrebko is three for three in bringing new roles to the Met and making them her own: Puccini’s "Tosca," Verdi’s "Aida" and now "Adriana Lecouvreur." In the final scene, when Adriana sings the aria “Poveri fiori,” Netrebko was magnificent. She cradles dying violets, a token of love she had given Maurizio, which she mistakenly thinks he has returned as a sign of rejection. In fact the princess has sent them, laced with poison. The implausible elements of the situation disappeared as Netrebko made this music, and this moment, seem an inspired creation.
Through Jan. 26 at the Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, New York City. 212-362-6000; metopera.org
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.