Dueling divas: Anita Rachvelishvili as the Princess of Bouillon and Anna Netrebko in the title role of Cilea’s "Adriana Lecouvreur" face off at the Met Opera, while Ambrogio Maestri, as Michonnet, looks on. (Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera/Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
Classical music critic

After years of aspiring to stake out the terrain of edgy, hip opera, the Metropolitan Opera seems to be having a season of retrenchment. In November, the company replaced Willy Decker’s modernistic giant-clock production of Verdi’s “La Traviata” with an inoffensive and more conventional rehashing by Michael Mayer. On New Year’s Eve, there followed “Adriana Lecouvreur,” a verismo warhorse by Francesco Cilea that’s well known as a vehicle for leading sopranos — in this case Anna Netrebko, today’s reigning diva, in a production by David McVicar that managed, with its busy sets of backstage at the Comédie-Française and aristocratic salons, to make the Met’s vast stage seem crowded.

No one is going to make great claims for the artistic depth of “Adriana,” beyond the repeated assertion that the soprano’s death is one of the most ludicrous in all of opera — a high bar, for sure (she smells or touches poisoned violets she believes are from her beloved Maurizio but are really from her rival). What you need to make it work is good singing — another high bar — and to judge from the performance on Friday, the second of the run, the Met delivered that. Indeed, the company pulled out the stops to such a degree that the real showstopper was not Netrebko, fine as she often was, but the mezzo-
soprano Anita Rachvelishvili as Adriana’s rival and poisoner, the Princess of Bouillon, singing with an old-school blood-and-guts approach in a voice several sizes larger than that of anyone else onstage, to the loud delight of the audience.

Underpinning the evening’s musical strength was Gianandrea Noseda, the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra, who continues to burnish his stature as a darling of the international music world. “Adriana” is a walk in the park for Noseda, who is a veteran opera conductor, a native Italian and an old friend and colleague of Netrebko, since they both got their professional starts at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, where he was for 10 years principal guest conductor. Still, he had his hands full keeping her and the rest of the robust ensemble in line with a score that is often intensely busy while remaining centered around a couple of strong themes — the “I am a servant to my art” theme, the “we are SO in love” theme — that keep announcing themselves with soap-opera-like dependability at the emotional high points.

McVicar’s bustling production was as busy as the score, particularly in the Comédie-Française scenes, when the backstage chaos was so realistic it was sometimes hard to track what was going on. (The opera’s convoluted plot, involving political machinations and clandestine, sometimes adulterous loves, supports the attitude of those opera-lovers who feel that paying attention to the story is of secondary importance.) But it did help focus the large cast, strong singers all, including Maurizio Muraro as the Prince of Bouillon, Carlo Bosi as the sycophantic Abbé of Chazeuil, and most strikingly Ambrogio Maestri in a touching portrayal of Michonnet, the theater’s stage manager, who secretly loves Adriana but soon realizes she is far beyond his reach.

Netrebko occupies a particular niche on the current opera scene: colorful and dynamic, a singer able to create a sense of occasion, with a beautiful voice whose lower registers she is lustily extending with a mezzo-like chesty richness to counterbalance the silvery floating top notes for which she is justly renowned. She is also heralded as a singing actress, an allegation I find open to debate. There is no question that she performed the role of Adriana to the hilt, but she never lost, to me, the sense that it was a performance, everything slightly exaggerated, and the famous spoken monologue from “Phaedra,” which needs to slide almost imperceptibly into impassioned singing at its climax, feeling simply stagy. Her first and most famous aria, “Io son l’umile ancella,” was startlingly uneven, with some notes uncertain and a certain amount of musical sliding around. But her duets with the bright tenor Piotr Beczala, playing her beloved Maurizio with ardent if slightly one-dimensional singing, were exciting, and her final aria as ravishing and limpid as one could wish. Certainly it was an exciting performance, albeit one that was more about Netrebko than about Adriana.

And at least this is a production that one might be willing to sit through more than once, with different casts — something else that’s important to bear in mind in opera productions, and that isn’t always true of inventive reinterpretations. It had many of the same hallmarks of November’s “Traviata,” which I saw at the live HD broadcast in December: a respectable cast that delivered some great singing without actually touching my ideals of what these roles could be, but nonetheless providing a satisfying performance. With these two productions, the Met’s glass is half-full, but with a very fine beverage indeed.

“Adriana Lecouvreur” has six more performances at the Metropolitan Opera through Jan. 26, including a live HD broadcast on Jan. 12.