In March 1730, Adrienne Lecouvreur, renowned tragic actress at the Comédie Française, died in Paris (in Voltaire’s arms, according to the legend). Her sudden death, after a love affair with Maurice, Count of Saxony, triggered suspicions that the Duchess of Bouillon, another paramour of the Count, had poisoned her, albeit this rumour was never confirmed by historians. Her life inspired a play by Scribe, which formed the basis for the libretto of Cilea’s opera Adriana Lecouvreur, premiered in 1902.

Michelangelo Mazza, Yusif Eyvazov (Maurizio) and Anna Netrebko (Adriana Lecouvreur)
© Bettina Stöß

The music, although firmly rooted in the Verismo tradition, has a more intimate quality than other operas of the same period: delicate arias alternating with outbursts of emotion. The plot is confusing and hard to follow, full of misunderstandings, notes written by one but delivered by another, disguises and revelations. Overall, the dramatic development of the libretto is unoriginal and full of operatic déjà vus. The Prince and the Abbé in the first act resemble the Count and Don Basilio in Nozze; the confrontation of the two women competing in declaring love for their common beau is almost a word-for-word rendition of the duet between Laura Adorno and the eponymous character in La Gioconda. Adriana shaming and accusing her rival in public resembles the encounters of the two Queens in Maria Stuarda, and the entire fourth act closely recalls La traviata: the sickly, desperate woman languishing in her room receives a package (instead of a letter), her beloved arrives asking for forgiveness but, alas, she dies in his arms. The characters are generally quite stereotypical and not particularly well developed; there is no emotional explanation for the love of Adriana and Maurizio and his attachment to her is doubtful at best. This opera can work only with a great diva in the title character, unafraid of going over the top, and Anna Netrebko delivered.

The beauty of her voice was ravishing, with remarkable uniformity from the top to the chest register. Shattering high notes alternated with heartbreaking pianissimos: she showed an almost super-human control of her instrument. I have never particularly liked the final aria, “Poveri fiori”, always found it corny and uninteresting. On this night in Berlin, Netrebko painted it with the richest palette of colours, every word carefully crafted, every phrase a small, brilliant surprise, the underlying melancholy just perfect. It takes a great singer to draw tears in a not-so-great aria.

Maurizio was Yusif Eyvazov; his tenor was well projected and his technique was admirable. He showed thoughtful phrasing and remarkable breath; the quality of the voice itself was perhaps not the best, the sound tended to get squeezed and fixed, especially early in the evening, where he seemed to push a bit too hard.

Alessandro Corbelli (Michonnet) and Anna Netrebko (Adriana Lecouvreur)
© Bettina Stöß

Veteran Alessandro Corbelli was Michonnet, the old stage director in love with Adriana. Corbelli is perfect in this kind of comical roles: he gave an interpretation always on the line between laughter and pathos, marked by a deep understanding of theatre and drama. He has this uncanny ability of upstaging anybody (even the Diva!) just by raising an eyebrow. His voice sounded a bit tired, but his overall performance was the thread that kept the whole opera together.

The Princess of Bouillon, Adriana’s rival, was Olesya Petrova; her powerful mezzo had the metallic quality typical of Slavic voices, but her high notes resulted round and bright. Her interpretation was very successful, and she got the largest applause stopping the show, after her opening aria “Acerba voluttà”. Prince Bouillon, her husband, was Patrick Guetti, a young singer with a booming bass, perhaps not too sophisticated but enjoyable. Burkhard Ulrich was a suitably mellifluous Abbe. The cast was completed by Vlada Borovko, Aigul Akhmetshina, Padraic Rowan, and Ya-Chung Huang, who, as Adriana’s colleagues at the Comédie Française, were remarkable in their frenzied ensembles.

Formally, this was supposed to be a concert performance; in reality, it was more than semi-staged, the singers interacting with each other and not reading from the score. This resulted in a lively, entertaining performance, and gave all singers a chance to show their acting abilities. The histrionics of Netrebko when Adriana was reciting verses, Corbelli’s little quirks, Eyvazov’s passion, all helped the drama come alive for a tremendous success.