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Glorious Murder at la Comédie-Française

Opéra Bastille
01/16/2024 -  & January, 19, 22, 25, 28, 31, February 4, 7, 2024
Francesco Cilea : Adriana Lecouvreur
Anna Netrebko*/Anna Pirozzi (Adriana Lecouvreur), Yusif Eyvazov*/Giorgio Berrugi (Maurizio), Ekaterina Semenchuk*/Clémentine Margaine (La Principessa di Bouillon), Sava Vemic (Il Principe di Bouillon), Ambrogio Maestri (Michonnet), Leonardo Cortellazzi (L’Abate di Chazeuil), Alejandro Balinas Vieites (Quinault), Nicholas Jones (Poisson), Ilanah Lobel‑Torres (Madamigella Jouvenot), Marine Chagnon (Madamigella Dangeville), Se‑Jin Hwang (Un maggiordomo)
Chœur de l’Opéra national de Paris, Alessandro Di Stefano (chorus master), Orchestre de l’Opéra national de Paris, Jader Bignamini (conductor)
David McVicar (stage director), Justin Way (revival director), Charles Edwards (sets), Brigitte Reiffenstuel (costumes), Adam Silverman (lighting), Andrew George (choreography), Adam Pudney (revival choreographer)

A. Netrebko (© Sébastien Mathé/Opéra national de Paris)

Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur (1902) is one of verismo’s most famous operas, together with Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (1892), Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana (1890) and Giordano’s Andrea Chénier (1896). Much of verismo pales in comparison to the works of the contemporary Puccini. That movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reflected the malaise plaguing musical creativity in Italy at the end of Verdi’s career and the exposure of the young composers to Wagner’s overwhelming influence. Though many adopted Wagnerian influences such as a fluid parlando musical idiom, they couldn’t entirely dispense with set arias, given Italian taste. The political and social turbulence that occurred following the achievement of Italian unification matched this new musical idiom in its predilection for physical violence onstage in a Grand-Guignol manner.

Opéra Bastille’s revival of David McVicar’s 2015 production felt like a blast from the past: grand singing, superstars, opulent period sets, breathtaking costumes and unashamedly conventional staging. The huge theatre (2,745 seats) was filled to capacity with a huge contingent of fervent Anna Netrebko fans. Several were non‑Parisians in town to see their Russian idol, foolishly banished from some major opera houses for political reasons. Two lone demonstrators held anti‑Netrebko slogans at the opera house’s entrance, but were justly ignored by an indifferent Parisian public.

Indeed, the stellar cast must have caused major indigestion for the Russophobic demonstrators, as three of the opera’s four leading roles were sung by a Russian, her Azeri husband and a Bielorussian. In today’s opera world, and in classical music in general, trying to exclude the Russosphere is similar to excluding Paris and Milan from the world of fashion. Too bad for the ideologically driven opera houses!

At first sight, Adriana is not a role one would associate with Netrebko, now at her career summit. Traditionally, it’s a role sung by sopranos in their twilight, as the role provides moments of dramatic intensity and histrionics that give some semblance of vocal prowess. Nonetheless, this was probably one of her best performances of recent years, and I can attest she was positively consumed by the role. In her enthrallment, she easily captured her adoring public, winning new admirers in the process.

Netrebko’s rendition of the Act IV “Poveri fiori” was the high point of the evening. From then to the end, she was glowing. Her death, by suffocation from poisoned violets sent by her rival Princesse de Bouillon, was riveting, thanks to McVicar’s astute directing. Underplaying is always more effective than over‑the‑top acting. The opera’s most famous piece, the Act I aria “Io son l’umile ancella” was masterful, with Netrebko’s signature high notes and pianissimi on full display. Astonishingly, Netrebko’s voice has substantially darkened, at moments sounding more like a mezzo, albeit one who easily reaches the stratosphere. Her Act III monologue, “Giusto Cielo! che feci in tal giorno!,” was not as powerful as it could have been. This is a typical verismo declamatory piece that requires perfect Italian diction and great acting. Netrebko certainly possesses the latter but not the former. Her flawed diction weakened the intensity of her insult of her rival.

Azeri tenor Yusif Eyvazov, Netrebko’s better half in real life, was miscast as Maurizio, Count of Saxony and son of the Polish King. The opera occurs during the period the Saxon dynasty ruled over Poland, after the Polish dynasty became extinct and the staunch Lutheran Saxon Elector opted to convert to Catholicism to reach the Polish throne. Sadly, Eyvazov’s impressively huge voice is anything but Italianate. Though he thrilled the audience with his secure high notes, his timbre is not appealing and lacks refinement. Moreover, his posture and demeanor are far from regal. Nonetheless, he was a thrilling Maurizio, thanks to the sheer power of his voice, the sincerity of his acting and his unsurprisingly strong chemistry with Netrebko.

Belarusian mezzo Ekaterina Semenchuk is a vocal phenomenon. Recently heard as Turandot at Barcelona’s Liceu, she’s that rare mezzo able to perform one of the most demanding dramatic soprano roles. Her huge voice has a metallic edge which some find unpleasant, but she is an indisputably brilliant actress. Only Semenchuk could be as persuasive in the role of Netrebko’s rival, matching the latter’s vocal prowess and charisma. The confrontations between the two women in Acts II and III were simply riveting.

Italian baritone Ambrogio Maestri was the evening’s Michonnet. It was a true luxury to witness one known as the most impressive Falstaff and Gianni Schicchi of our time assume such a modest role. Michonnet, Adriana’s mentor and confidant, is also in love with her. A subtle actor, Maestri was able to skillfully portray the timid older man, smitten yet resigned to conceal his infatuation.

Serbian bass Sava Vemic was another high point of the evening, an absolute delight, in the vocally undemanding role of the shameless intriguer Prince de Bouillon, who discovers via Adriana’s Act III confrontation that his wife is unfaithful and enamoured with Maurizio. Rounding out the cast’s notable minor roles, Italian tenor Leonardo Cortellazzi brilliantly embodied the slimy cleric, Abbate di Chazeuil.

David McVicar’s traditional production evoked Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782), familiar to the public with Stephen Frears’ 1988 eponymous film. Amorous intrigue, social imbalance between the classes, and a healthy dose of aristocratic moral depravity – all are on display here in McVicar’s elegant staging. A brewing revolution is subtly felt. Act I astutely opens to the backstage of Paris’s leading theatrical troupe, la Comédie-Française, of which the actual character Adrienne Lecouvreur (1692‑1730) was a most prominent member. The promiscuity of the actors and the predation of Prince de Bouillon are observed. Mercifully, McVicar cleverly avoided vulgarity and excess in these scenes.

The sets in Prince de Bouillon’s palace in Act II were underwhelming yet effective. The secret hiding and eventual escape of the unfaithful Princesse de Bouillon was well staged.

The mannered ballet depicting The Three Graces in Act III deftly distilled the effete nature of the French aristocracy, evoking an earlier period. Indeed, one of the dancers was dressed as none other than Louis XIV, Le Roi Soleil (1638‑1715), known to have taken part in the Court’s ballets. Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s appealingly elegant costumes were impressively true to the period.

Though Adriana Lecouvreur is a musically modest work, this was a thrilling performance, a rarity in this day and age, with superlative voices, convincing acting and visually enticing sets. Composer Cilea’s scarceness of melodic creativity is compensated by the repeated use of the melodies in the tenor aria “La dolcissima effigia” and that of the soprano, “Io son l’umile ancella,” both leitmotifs throughout the opera.

Together with the intense drama, one could be forgiven for thinking we are enjoying a masterpiece, especially with such a brilliant cast and marvellously detailed production. Though I am no fan of verismo composers and their minor operatic creations, I am always open to experiencing productions of such works as Catalani’s La Wally (1892), Cilea’s L’Arlesiana (1897), Leoncavallo’s La Bohème (1897), Mascagni’s Iris (1898) and Giordano’s Fedora (1898), as long as exceptional artists and directors on par with this production are at the helm.

Ossama el Naggar



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