Maurizio, count of Saxony, is in love with a great actress of his time. Her name? Adriana Lecouvreur. But the woman hunter he is, Maurizio also flirts with the Princess de Bouillon. She considers the count her own royal property.
There you have the plot of Francesco Cilea's opera Adriana Lecouvreur in a nutshell. The year is 1730, the place Paris, the scene the foyer of the Comédie-Française. The story is rather interesting because Maurizio and the already married Princess have a secret meeting at night. The husband (the Prince de Bouillon) suspects their liaison and tries to interrupt them. The Princess hides and Maurizio asks Adriana Lecouvreur to help her escape. At this moment, both women do not know each other. But then the two women discover that they are both in love with the same man. Bitter rivalry is the result.
They recognize each other on a reception. Adriana insults the Princess in public with a Jean Racine monologue. She knows she cannot live without Maurizio. Near the end Adriana receives some violets, now faded, that Adriana originally gave to Maurizio as a token of her affection. She draws the conclusion that this must be his farewell gift. She cries while taking up the smell of the once beautiful violets, when Maurizio suddenly reenters the stage. He has returned to declare his love for Adriana and to propose marriage to her. But then it becomes clear that Adriana is dying, poisoned by the violets that were actually sent by the envious Princess.
The piece has acquired the status of the operatic equivalent of Sunset Boulevard - a work about a glamorous cult diva that has become in turn a vehicle for glamorous cult divas - but it is actually a rather clever study of the relationship between life and art. The twist lies in Cilea's equation of life with music, and art with spoken drama. (...) Cilea's version has Adriana murdered by the princess, though not before he has taken his audience on a roller-coaster ride that confounds all expectations. He initially cons us into thinking that what we are watching is a comedy of manners. Cilea is wonderful at capturing the salaciousness of society intrigue. The crunch comes when Adriana blurs the line between reality and art by performing a monologue from Phèdre at a soiree given by the Prince de Bouillon, inflecting the lines so as to expose his wife's adultery. At this point Cilea lets fly an alarming barrage of percussion, jolting the score from comedy into tragedy.
The Guardian, July 13, 2002
Adriana Lecouvreur (1902) was Cilea's fourth opera and his most rewarding. The premiere took place in Milan's Teatro Lirico on November 6, 1902. The libretto of this opera in four acts was written by Arturo Colautti, after Augustin Eugène Scribe's scenario.
In reality Adriana Lecouvreur was one of the most important actrices of the Comédie-Française of the Voltaire epoque. She was indeed almost poisoned by her rival in love affairs, but died a natural death at a young age somewhat later.
The strongest part in Cilea's opera is Adriana's striking aria called Io sono l'umile ancella, in which the humility of the artist is expressed. Although the Princess clearly is the true heart breaker, Cilea did not manage to translate this very well into her music. His strong talent lies in natural, unpretentious lyrics. Adriana Lecouvreur is far from a surprising, brilliant opera, but it is full of typical opera conventions, in which you can see that Cilea was in fact a great opera teacher. It never had much success, mainly because contemporary operas were more sensational, like Amilcare Poncielli's La gioconda, which also knew two female rivals in love.
Adriana Lecouvreur has also been issued on the movie screen multiple times, sometimes called Adrienne Lecouvreur (a French adaptation) instead. The silent 1913 version starred Sarah Bernhardt, the most recent version was filmed for TV in 1989.
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