Francesco Cilea: Adriana Lecouvreur (1902)

Opera in four acts. Running Time: 2 hours 5 minutes.

Since Forman already reviewed this, I’m mostly going to do a leitmotif accounting. The review is based on the 1961 recording with Renata Tebaldi in the title role with Mario del Monaco and Giulietta Simionato as Maurizio and the Princess respectively.

LOOK OUT FOR:

ACT 1: Backstage at the Comedie Francaise. (35 minutes)

4: The opera opens with a leitmotif which I will call “Show Biz” because we are among the actors backstage at the Comedie Francaise in February or March 1730. We meet Michonnet, the stage manager who is about as in demand as Figaro, at least to the four actors who press him to help them. We are introduced to the Prince de Boullion and the Abbe de Chazeuil who in spite of his clerical title is a social fixer. The two men flirt with two actresses in a duet * which is pure send up but includes a high-minded dramatic tune and some classical references as the men flaunt their educations. Forman calls them “the poncey pair” and the two tunes here are their leitmotifs.

6: The first number of any real note, however, is Adriana’s entrance aria ** first as she rehearses Racine and then as she spurns the flattery of the poncey pair. Although not the greatest number in the opera, it is very good, and it also introduces us to another leitmotif “Adriana”. After a dialogue with the company they all go off to “the show must go on” motif.

13: Michonnet is in love with Adriana, but she is oblivious to his feelings although she does think he is the only person in the entire theatre word who is 100% genuine. He does admit to her that he is contemplating asking a woman to marry him: she is still completely in the dark as they duet to a mild but tender melody in the upper strings *. She admits that she is in love with a certain attache of the Count of Saxony.

18: Maurizio arrives after a sudden return of “the show must go on” but things really warm up with his aria ** in which he praises the heck out of Adriana and which eventually turns into a duet with her. The main melody is probably a leitmotif for Maurizio or at least his love for Adriana. Notice a simple but fleeting motif here, it represents the violets Adriana gives him, and it returns. She departs to something that is at first her motif but then turns into something much more sinister which we will discover is the motif of la Comtesse de Bouillon in the second act.

23: This pops up just has her husband returns with the Abbe and they read a letter apparently from la Duclos involving a rendezvous. This is an issue because Duclos is the Prince’s mistress. However, unknown to them, it was written by Duclos but for the Countess who is having an affair with Maurizio (for political expedience on his part, he doesn’t actually love the Countess). The scene is very amusing as the four actors from earlier spy on their plan to catch Duclos at her rendezvous **.

27: Michonette watches Adriana’s performance from backstage, Adriana motif plays first from the orchestra. It is so lovely and sad as he consoles himself with her acting **. Maurizio’s love motif floats about as well, perhaps it really is just “love for Adriana” in general? Maurizio returns having received the Countess’ letter and he has to cancel his plans with Adriana for that evening. He sends it to her via another actress who gives it to her onstage, prompting her performance to turn to rage to great effect. The two men contemplate their mutual love for the same woman, separately of course. The Prince invites Adriana & Company to a townhouse for a midnight party which is a ruse for upsetting the apparent rendezvous between Duclos and Maurizio. The act ends with a sparkling turn of “the show must go on”.

ACT 2: A room in the townhouse, dark, a garden at back. (33 minutes)

3: The Princess (you know it is her because that menacing motif shows up again) comes on in a manic fit as she waits for the arrival of Maurizio, surprisingly a rather accurate depiction of a woman waiting for her love. The best part is her address to “the star of the East” (the reference makes no sense at all) which has a brilliant melody ***, really the best in the show and it returns rather often.

9: The duet between the Princess and Maurizio has no specific tune, rather it is backed by a series of musical fragments including one military tune and another which seems to consist of harp octaves. She notices the violets from Adriana and he gives them to her in order to get her off the scent. It really comes off more as recitative, which is unfortunately how much of the rest of the opera is headed, that and the occasional ornery brassy chord, the something that resembles a mild form of the Princess’ motif, then the motif itself. Eventually we get a sedate aria from Maurizio * which is to a completely different tune.  Suddenly the Poncey Pair arrives but the Countess is able to hide in an adjoining room and thus avoids detection. The two find Maurizio alone and they search for Duclos. Adriana herself arrives to a glowingly soft orchestral accompaniment and her monologue theme; she learns that Maurizio is not attache to the Count of Saxony, he IS the Count of Saxony.

15: The second Adriana-Maurizio has a good tune, but is a bit stilted for some reason *. Plot-wise it is also rather bizarre: he confirms his real identity and has her promise  not to allow the Poncey Pair to find out who the woman in the other room is but to release her in complete darkness. References to the Princess appear, although previous music from the love scenes but to a much more limited extent. The Poncey Pair tries to Mickey-mouse their way into opening the door to the other room but Adriana is true to her word. This is all very mild and musically dull if there is a good deal of action occurring on stage as she guards the door for two minutes. Michonette arrives, she reveals what she knows: there is a woman in the other room who needs to be allowed out without the Poncey Pair finding out. Who she is and why she is in there isn’t of anyone’s concern.

26: What follows is a two and a half minute long intermezzo * based on two themes from earlier: the Princess’ Star Theme and Maurizio’s big “I love you Adriana!” theme. This occurs as Adriana eliminates all of the lights in the house. She eventually opens the door for the mysterious woman as the Star Theme wells up from the orchestra and the two women grope about in the dark seemingly aimlessly as it takes five minutes for the Princess to get out of there after being let out of the closet. Partially this is because the Princess wants to figure out who her rescuer is and the two women end up jealous of each other (even though they don’t know who the other is). Adriana’s theme appears, then the Princess’s agitated theme in a different guise, then in full force. This is followed by the theme from the second Adriana-Maurizio duet just before the Princess escapes in a rush of a whirlwind. Adriana curses her as a coward and discovers a dropped piece of jewelry to a rather grand orchestral finish.

ACT 3: A salon in the house of Bouillon prepared for a ballet performance. (26.5 minutes)

6: The act starts with the first occurrence of a scenic dancing theme in the strings which will return over and over for the first ten minutes or so of the act. The Princess is enraged about the idea that Maurizio has another woman on the side (no consideration to the fact that she has Maurizio on the side). Her agitated motif dominates whenever she contemplates but otherwise the Abbe does a good job of distracting her. For some reason that makes no dramatic sense, an aria for the Prince about a poisonous chemical he has been asked by the government to study should be here but it is NEVER performed, which is annoying because it explains how the Princess figures out how to murder Adriana. The first thing of real interest in the act occurs when Adriana herself arrives and is officially first introduced to the Princess (who is instantly suspicious, her own theme occurs just after in a fury) to her “on acting” theme from act 1 *. The Princess goes into an odd story about how Maurizio has apparently been wounded in a duel in order to be absolutely certain Adriana is the other woman (also Adriana goes on about finding a piece of expensive jewelry which she hands over to the Prince who immediately recognizes it as belonging to his wife after it is revealed that Adriana has pawned all of her own jewelry in order to get Maurizio out of prison). When Adriana faints, she seals her fate as far as the Princess is concerned.

10: Maurizio arrives rather conveniently at that exact moment and after uncharacteristically ignoring Adriana regales everyone with a bizarre military song about a recently successful campaign against Russian forces *.

13: The centre-piece of the act is a nine minute long ballet * on the subject of the Judgement of Paris (get it?). As dramatic allegory (and irony) it is good but musically it is rather dull with mild tunes, mystic female voices, and a touch of brass which Forman called “the Finlandias” (the themes for Juno and Athena respectively). Although the Princess and Adriana eventually break in with shouts of the b and w words at each other, it continues on for some time after it has ceased being the main dramatic focus although it tries to grab us again with something similar to Maurizio’s love theme from act 1 from the chorus.

22: Eventually the Prince suggests a recitation by Adriana, the Princess suggests Ariana abbandonata as a cruel slight, but the Prince suggests Phedre which gives Adriana an opportunity to take revenge on the Princess by accusing her (rightly) of adultery in public using her monologue * as a subtle cover. This is mostly done in declamation, thus parlando, rather than arioso although she ends singing and is acclaimed by all except the Princess. La Lecouvreur then retires, her slight by the Princess having been repaid with a bit of verismo acting, but the orchestra warns us in closing that something very bad is about to happen.

ACT 4: The parlour of Adriana’s residence, late afternoon on her name day. (33.5 minutes)

0: The act begins with an intermezzo * based on the theme of the violets which we first heard when Adrian gave them to Maurizio in act 1 and which forms the musical base of her aria later in this act. These were then handed over by Maurizio to the Princess who figured out that they must have been given to him by Adriana. Michonnet arrives as she hasn’t been at the theatre for weeks and has been mostly sleeping (at present she is still in bed). Mostly we get Michonnet’s love theme for Adriana before she oddly arrives to the Princess’s agitated theme. For four minutes she mopes about how Maurizio has apparently deserted her and she wants to commit suicide (this is really sad). Her four actor friends from act 1 pop in for a visit to give her name’s day best wishes (this is genuinely really nice of them).

12: They sing a cute verse * about the Prince who is now making the rounds, also, Adriana needs to make a comeback at the Comedie!The dramatic theme from the Poncey Pair pops in here. She gets a parcel, apparently from Maurizio, opens it as the actors are escorted out by Michonnet and gets poisoned by some radioactive violets (the Princess sent them).

16: Adriana’s address to the poor withering violets * that she assumes are from Maurizio, apparently as a way to dump her.

19: The third Adriana-Maurizio duet * frustratingly lacks a great new tune. It is okay, it gets the situation across, but if there were a moment in which Cilea should have provided us with a great tune this would have been it. She finds out that Maurizio did not send the violets (then who did?). Adriana collapses as the introduction of the Princess’ Star Theme pops in and she goes into madness (a return of the tune Maurizio arrived to in act 1). Michonnet rushes in and calls for a physician.

31: The finale ** is surprisingly good (starting with a trace of the music from act 3 to which Adriana left the party). She becomes lucid enough to realize she is dying and realistically reacts in terror because she doesn’t want to die (Princess’ theme). Then Cilea gives us the most radiant melody in the violins (based on a modified form of her entrance monologue in act 1) as she has a pre-death vision. Michonnet is the first to announce her death, but Maurizio pulls off a satisfactory tenor cry before the orchestra takes over rather magnificently and gently to the final curtain.

COMMENTS:

Adriana Lecouvreur is so filled with pluses and minuses that it is impossible to call it as either a masterpiece or a bad opera. The pluses are the orchestration, which in Cilea’s hands is the most perfectly lucid, lush, and frothy of any opera written by an Italian ever, the adorable title character who only a wicked adulterous and murderous Princess could possibly hate (thanks Eugene Scribe because even she is awesome!) whose death scene (poisoned violets aside) is one of the most realistic in opera in terms of the main character’s actions, and Cilea’s tuneful melodies (based on his study of French techniques from both the 18th century, as vaguely executed in the ballet, and the late-19th century, especially a sense of refinement apparently grounded in Massenet) which form a delightfully fresh leitmotif system that explains most of the behind the scenes narrative as well as announces who is about to come on stage if you just pay attention to them. The minuses are the libretto, which after the almost perfect first act makes little sense particularly regarding the two women bumbling about in the dark and especially the motivations of Maurizio whose actions become more and more illogical until we get back to near perfection with the death scene. (Why doesn’t he tell Adriana about both his true identity and his relationship for political convenience with the the Princess? Why is he so cool to her during the party? And why does he apparently dump her over some gossip after the party?). Also what is up with the references to him having political troubles, threats on his life, prison, a duel even? The cutting (during the original rehearsals) of the Prince’s act 3 monologue which explains where the poison comes from is problematic, as is the fact that the melodic system (although great so far as it goes) simply ends up being stretched beyond the breaking point because it is too thin and eventually we end up with a lot of ornery stuff when we really shouldn’t. However, we have some very strong female characters here (the males are the weak ones which is refreshing change, although Michonnet is a welcomed exception whose personality is thankfully left untouched by the cuts in the libretto). Ultimately I just love this opera, because of the positives and in spite of the negatives. Like Forman I love Adriana, so from me she gets an alpha.

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