Every decade or so, the Metropolitan Opera revives Adriana Lecouvreur, the only title in Francesco Cilea’s oeuvre that can be said to figure, however marginally, in the contemporary repertoires of international opera companies. Adriana is back at the Met this season and was seen in cinemas “Live in HD” earlier this month. Like the far better-known Giacomo Puccini, Cilea (born in 1866, died in 1950) was an adherent of Verismo, or more accurately of the “giovane scuola (the young school. See our post of January 3, 2018, “What is Verismo?” https://operapost.blogspot.com/2018/01/what-is-verismo.html). And like Floria Tosca, Adrienne Lecouvreur was a diva, though not a fictional 19th-century Italian opera star but a historical 18th-century French tragedienne.
Cilea began work on Adriana Lecouvreur in 1900 after the 1899 success of L’Arlesiana, the other of his compositions that continues to have some currency. Premiered at the Teatro Lirico of Milan, Adriana, together with L’Arlesiana starred the young Enrico Caruso who contributed to the success of both works. In 1907, Adriana opened the Metropolitan season with Caruso opposite the soprano Lina Cavalieri. A run of only three performances tells the story of the sorry reception Cilea’s work received in New York that year. The most authoritative New York reviewer deemed that Cavalieri “has neither beauty of voice nor excellence of song to recommend, but who can make pictures.” Following its initial fiasco, it took almost sixty years, and the persuasive powers of the reigning prima donna, Renata Tebaldi, for the opera to return to New York. Bad luck ensued once again: in vocal crisis, Tebaldi cancelled her last appearances.
In those sixty years, Adriana was very much alive in Italian theatres. And after 1950, Magda Olivero, who had come out of a nine-year retirement at the behest of Cilea himself, made the title role her own. We are fortunate to have a transcription of a 1959 Naples performance where she replaced an indisposed Tebaldi. Here is Adriana’s entrance aria, “Io son l’umile ancella (I am the humble handmaiden),” preceded by a few spoken lines from Racine’s tragedy, Bajazet, that the actress is about to perform on the stage of the Comédie Française. Adriana rehearses two deliveries, the second in a more emphatic style that better suits the text. There follows the aria in which Adriana explains to the assembled admirers that she is a mere servant of the author’s genius. Conductor Gianandrea Gavazzeni described the Olivero magic that brought the Naples audience to its feet, as it had and would so many others: “the shade and light of the vowels, the detached notes, the light legato, the true legato, the space between the words” (for more on Magda Olivero, see our posts of September 9, 2014, https://operapost.blogspot.com/2014/09/magda-olivero-1910-2014.html "Magda Olivero, 1910-2017 , and September 16 2014, “More Magda Olivero: Two Death Scenes” https://operapost.blogspot.com/2014/09/more-magda-olivero-two-death-scenes.html .
Later in Act I, Maurizio arrives and declares his love for Adriana, praising her beauty in the short aria “La dolcissima effigie (The sweetest of semblances).” The passionate, devil-may-care tenor is Rolando Villazon; the aria is from a 2007 recital CD.
At the beginning of Act II we meet Adriana’s rival in love, the Principessa di Bouillon. She is unsure of Maurizio’s affections, anxious over their forthcoming tryst, and yet hopeful that the evening star will smile on their affair. In this 1955 video excerpt from Italian television, we see Fedora Barbieri, a leading exponent of the dramatic mezzo-soprano manner. Barbieri offers an object lesson in the explosive style apt for the agitated opening section, and the broad lyric effusion of the final lines.
In Act IV, Adriana meets her death by breathing the scent of flowers poisoned by the enraged Principessa. Tebaldi, in a recital disk made in the mid-1950s, gives an account of “Poveri fiori (Poor faded flowers)” that shows her in peak form, her honeyed timbre in service to the long, legato phrases and the subtlest changes of dynamics.
Post Script: If Adriana is Cilea’s gift to sopranos, the tenor lead of L’Arlesiana is his present to tenors. Federico, love-sick for the unnamed and unseen woman from Arles, envies his companion, the sleeping shepherd. He yearns for the oblivion that would allow him to forget the faithless object of his infatuation. In this 1928 recording, with great simplicity and palpable sincerity, Tito Schipa captures Federico’s despair in the unbearable heartbreak of the culminating phrase, “Mi fai tanto male. Ahimè! (You wound me so deeply. Dear God!).”