I enjoyed the opportunity to get to know this rarity by Francesco Cilea, who is really only known for one aria, the lament of Federico from his opera L'Arlesiana. Adriana Lecouvreur dates from 1902, five years later and is thought of mainly as a soprano star vehicle. It contains much good music apart from the soprano showstoppers. Obvious influences are Wagner and Puccini, as you might expect from an opera written in 1902, but Cilea's lyrical musical lines have a quality that is his alone.
This opera is set in 1730's Paris and tells the story of the actress Adriana Lecouvreur, who really was the star of the Comédie Française at that time. Her lover is Maurizio, the Count of Saxony, who is also having a dalliance with the Princess de Bouillon, apparently because she might be able to further his political ambitions. The story tells of the rivalry between the two women, ending in Adriana's death when she sniffs a poisoned posy of violets.
Dramatically the work is quite ambitious, the first act being set backstage at the Comédie, so we have a rear view of the actors performing behind a gauze curtain upstage while the action of the opera takes place downstage. This looking-glass world is most apparent when Adriana's monologue in the theatre is mirrored by her manager delivering a monologue to us: "Ecco il monologo " (Here is the monologue), in which he is supposedly commenting on her performance but is, in fact, telling us of his secret love for her.
Even the third act ballet, The Judgement of Paris, serves a purpose since it underlines the perils of choosing between rival women. Daniela Dessi is a magnificent Adriana and makes the most of her big numbers, particularly during her extended death scene in the Traviata-like final act. Olga Borodina, as her rival has a deep, exciting tone to her voice and the two soprano-mezzo duets are amongst the musical highlights of the piece.
The weak link in this excellent production from La Scala Milan is the Maurizio of Sergei Larin. He has a pleasant tenor sound but is physically unprepossessing and it is difficult to imagine two beautiful and influential women fighting over him. Part of the fault for this must be attributed to Arturo Colautti's libretto. If Maruzio was really two-timing the women there may have been more substance to the drama but we know that only baritones do that and tenors are always honourable men. So we have to believe that Maurizio loves only Adriana and is dallying with the princess for political reasons. Maurizio convinces Adriana of his love first by telling her that she looks like his mother and then by saying "You are beautiful, like my flag". Later he proposes to Adriana by saying "Will you accept my glorious name?" With chat-up lines like that, I don't think he would have much luck at a Birmingham disco.
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