An embarrassment of riches – creamy, fruity, luxuriantly unctuous – was on full display New Year’s Eve as the Metropolitan Opera rang in 2019 with an all-star return of Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreuer. The backstage opera brims with ravishing showpieces for half a dozen singers, sweeping orchestral interludes, tittery, catty shade-throwing by jealous lovers and overheated torch songs, not to mention killer violets.
A thrilling wet kiss to theatrical lives, with a plot that careers from melodrama to sheer incomprehensibility, Adriana Lecouvreur begs for a rococo style that’s all but gone out of fashion these days. Happily, Sir David McVicar’s production presents the show on its own lush terms, here conducted by Gianandrea Noseda with thrilling sensitivity to its subtleties as well as its excesses. And a spectacular cast responds with a performance of unbridled beauty.
Leading the way is Anna Netrebko as Adriana, top-billed actress of the Comédie-Française, drafted at the last minute to substitute for her indisposed rival at the opening of a new play by Racine (“Moliere is in the audience!” someone shouts). Fussed over by backstage sycophants, Adriana causes swooning from the get-go with her introductory aria about how seriously she takes her job and The Theater.
The only person Adriana truly cares for in the fickle bunch is the devoted stage manager Michonnet, who will carry much of the weight of the intrigues as the story unfolds, and is sung with beauty and consummate acting chops by the Italian baritone Ambrogio Maestri.
Michonnet, by the way, silently longs for Adriana, who is engaged in a torrid affair with the Count of Saxony, sometimes disguised as Maurizio, sung with romantic élan by the Polish tenor Piotr Beczala. But, uh oh, the Count/Maurizio also has been in flagrante with the feverishly clingy Princess of Bouillon (the Georgian mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili), who is none too inclined to let her lover leave her.
While waiting for him to show up at an after-party, the Princess delivers the gorgeous aria “O vagabonda stella,” whose connection to her predicament is tenuous at best. Then there’s her husband, the Prince, a bounder sung by Italian bass-baritone Maurizio Muraro, who has a plum voice for a plum role and flaunts it. He arranges a ball at the palace to feature a ballet of “The Judgment of Paris” (choreographed here by Andrew George and artfully danced) meant to expose the shenanigans in the court, though maybe not.
Adding to the aural pleasures were the visuals provided by the design team (Charles Edwards, sets; Adam Silverman, lighting; and Brigitte Reiffenstuel, costumes), evoking the period with theatrical naturalism that looked expensive and was downright comforting.
I saw the second performance of the season, and the promise of opening night was easily fulfilled. Noseda seems to have earned the admiration of the Met orchestra and beamed enthusiasm for the music over three and a half unflagging hours. And why not? The music is so beautiful, and so beautifully sung that it’s almost possible to forgive the emotional void at the opera’s center – a hollowness even Adriana’s death-by-violets cannot fill.