Art of the Theater in
06 Mar, 2009 - Linnea Leonard Kickasola
Adriana Lecouvreur, Francesco Cilea’s only successful opera, seems to have inspired either great fascination or fervent distaste in its audiences over the years. Premiering in Milan in 1902, it first came to the Metropolitan Opera in the 1907-08 season. After that it did not return to the Met stage until 1963 and has since been revived every decade since.
A prime example of the Italian verismo movement that flourished at the end of the 19th century, Adriana Lecouvreur is not as well known as Cavalleria rusticana (Mascagni) and Pagliacci (Leoncavallo), verismo operas that have become staples of the repertoire, but its frank emotionalism and dramatic intensity are very similar. Verismo means “realism” and the composers of this school sought to dramatize common people–their love affairs and tragedies – with a level of passion and emotion previously granted to mythological characters or nobility.
The Real-Life History of Adriana Lecouvreur
Those who are drawn to Adriana Lecouvreur are entranced by the soaring vocal lines and the opportunity for emotional fireworks in the dramatic exploration of the main characters – in particular, the soprano role of Adriana. Those who revile the opera generally find the story ridiculous and the music less symphonic than they would wish.
While the story is certainly melodramatic, it is based on the real lives of Adrienne Lecouvreur (1692-1730) and Maurice of Saxony (1696-1750). She was the famous actress of her day and he the illegitimate son of a future king of Poland, notorious both for his martial exploits as well as his love affairs. Maurice and Adrienne had a nine-year affair, during which Maurice tried to create an independent kingdom for himself in the Baltic with Adrienne’s financial support.
A duchess who was a jealous rival for Maurice’s affections paid to have Adrienne mocked on stage during a performance of Corneille’s Phedre. History reports that Adrienne turned her lines from the play back on her rival, who ran from the theater amid much mockery. Adrienne died shortly after of unknown and suspicious causes. Eugène Scribe, a famous French playwright, wrote the play on Adrienne’s life that served as the direct source for the opera libretto.
Cilea’s music, in true verismo fashion, does nothing to downplay the emotionalism of the characters, but the story itself is not more melodramatic or preposterous than many opera plots. It is also important to realize that the opera is in large part about the life and drama of the theater and those who make it their home.
The real Adrienne had such significant theatrical skills that she is credited with raising the social status of actresses from servant class to being accepted in polite society. The role of Adriana in the opera is performed best by those singers who understand the necessity of truly embracing the verismo style – legato singing, using crescendo and decrescendo, with an emphasis on diction – while also understanding the theatrical style of the day.
The best example of this comes in the Act III party scene when Adriana is manipulated by the jealous duchess into performing a monologue from a play. She chooses a recitation from Racine’s Phedre which denounces adulterous women, effectively silencing and condemning the duchess with her words. In the opera, the scene from Phedre is written to be declaimed in the style of Racine, with Adriana only breaking into song at the very end. The scene requires theatrical training which goes beyond singing preparation, but if done well, it dramatically evokes a theatrical past.
A Production for Today
The Metropolitan Opera’s current production of Adriana Lecouvreur, using sets from the 1963 production but restaged and updated by director Mark Lamos with updated video backdrops, is a warm and enjoyable production with much good singing. The greatest draw is Placido Domingo, the famous Spanish tenor, singing Maurizio in an impressive repeat of his Met debut 40 years ago in the same role opposite Renate Tebaldi.
The title role in the opera is sung by Maria Guleghina. The Ukrainian soprano is best known for heavier roles, such as Verdi’s Lady Macbeth, so there was some speculation as to whether her voice was flexible and sensitive enough to sing the melting lines called for in the verismo style. While she tempered the inclination to sing full volume for every scene and did achieve some lovely floating lines, some of the pianissimos were under pitch and certain scenes which required more nuance, such as the soaring opening aria “Io son l’umile ancella” (“I am the humble handmaiden of creative genius”), struggled to sound under control.
The role of Maurizio requires less nuanced singing with its emphasis on heroic declamation and passionate lovemaking, but Domingo’s singing was a prime example of the verismo style with warm legato lines and throbbing high notes. Only in the party scene when Maurizio is describing the battle was there a sense that he was singing more cautiously to preserve the voice, but all of the climactic moments of the arias and duets were rock solid. That Domingo is still singing this well 40 years after his debut is a testament to the care he has taken with his voice. He brings a great wealth of experience and knowledge of vocal style to his performing that is not always heard onstage, even at this level.
Olga Borodina tore into the role of the Principessa de Bouillon, Adriana’s jealous rival, with great abandon. Her dramatic aria that opens the second act was tempestuously and beautifully sung, and she was a fiery focal point in her duets with Maurizio and Adriana. The Russian mezzo sings with a lovely dark color that moves richly through her whole range and she seems temperamentally well-suited to these dramatic roles she has been playing recently at the Met.
Italian baritone, Roberto Frontali, sang the role of the Michonnet, with great warmth and beauty. Michonnet, Adriana’s manager who loves her but cannot find the courage to tell her, is sometimes played and sung in a more comic manner, but Frontali brought real dignity and vocal strength to the role.
The Met orchestra sounded very good under Italian conductor, Marco Armiliato. The tempos moved well, but he also brought out the delicate lines and varying colors of the score.
Adriana Lecouvreur is no longer playing at the Metropolitan Opera, but you can find out more and listen to clips from the opera on the Met’s website.