A Good Case For Cilea From Vienna

Vienna Staatsoper, November 18, 2017—In Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, a leading actress at the Comédie-Française (based on the real life Adrienne Lecouvreur) is poisoned by her rival for the heart of a count. The story may look titillating, but librettist Arturo Colautti’s version is convoluted, and the score can sound maudlin compared with grittier verismo works. Accordingly, Lecouvreur has developed a reputation as a second-rate work.

But in the right hands this can be a hugely enjoyable work, as the Wiener Staatsoper’s run of David McVicar’s production (which opened at the Royal Opera House seven years ago, and now boasts a new cast headed by Anna Netrebko) aptly demonstrates. McVicar’s sumptuous period conception offers few fresh insights, but generally keeps out of the way, and, thanks to its unfussiness, helps anchor the plot over its long span. Charles Edwards’ set, which shows the Comédie-Française from various angles, oozes classical splendor that mirrors the luxuriousness of Cilea’s score, while Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes are lavish. Only a rather bromidic third-act Ballet failed to register visually.

Clearly, McVicar trusts the performers to hold our attention. He is right to. Netrebko’s darkened tone and unrelenting dramatic intensity made for a sterling Lecouvreur, and her soft-grained delivery of both her wafting ode to the “creative spirit” and high-lying aria in which she kisses the poisoned flowers was affecting. Chemistry between Netrebko and the tenor Piotr Beczala’s Maurizio was believable. If the latter’s singing is sometimes unrelentingly full-throttle, its impressive size and large dose of squillo makes for a gallant depiction. But Beczala showed his sensitive side too, in a heart-rending delivery of the aria “La dolcissima effigie”.

Roberto Frontali provided rock-steady vocalization as the sombre stage manager Michonnet, and radiated ardor when declaring his love to Lecouvreur though never sounded undignified. Elena Zhidkova was a bit shrill up top, but such astringency did not feel inappropriate for the scheming Princesse de Bouillon. It was the conductor Elvelino Pidò, however, that proved the real star turn: his tireless probing revealed a score rich in color and drama, and his soupy treatment of the tempos allowed us to wallow in its glories. Pidò was clearly enjoying himself, and the playing was commensurately ecstatic, but there was also grit when required. Here was as good a case as any for Cilea’s much-maligned work.