Embracing The Theater At The Heart Of Cilea’s ‘Adriana Lecouvreur’

Michael Fabiano as Maurizio and Natalie Aroyan as Adriana Lecouvreur in Opera Australia’s 2023 production of ‘Adriana Lecouvreur’ at the Sydney Opera House. (Photo by Keith Saunders)

SYDNEY — Theater about theater holds a special allure for directors and singers. Adriana Lecouvreur does not get performed often, but Opera Australia’s starry cast exuded enthusiasm for the piece in advance of their Sydney premiere on Feb. 20. Director Rosetta Cucchi calls Adriana “a dream for every stage director — an opera that talks about theater in all its shades.” Soprano Ermonela Jaho, no stranger to the title role, says it is one of her favorites. “You need to be not only a good singer,” she says, “but also a great actress. It is very easy to find yourself in it, as you look at yourself through the eyes of another artist.”

Adriana tells the heavily fictionalized story of a historical figure. Adrienne Lecouvreur was an early 18th-century star of the French stage, widely considered the greatest actress of her era. She was known not only for pioneering a more naturalistic acting style, but also for her grand romance (with military commander and illegitimate royal Maurice de Saxe) and mysterious death. All this drama inspired Eugène Scribe and Ernest Legouvé, whose play was in turn adapted by composer Francesco Cilea and librettist Arturo Colautti for a 1902 Milan premiere.

The infamously twisty plot revolves around four leads: Adriana/Adrienne (Ermonela Jaho), Maurizio/Maurice (tenor Michael Fabiano), Adriana’s romantic rival the Princess of Bouillon (mezzo-soprano Carmen Topciu), and stage manager Michonnet (baritone Giorgio Caoduro). Michonnet has long loved Adriana, but she adores Maurizio (whom she believes to be a common soldier). Maurizio, though in love with Adriana, is carrying on a politically expedient affair with the Princess. Through a series of mishaps and schemes, the Princess and Adriana learn of each other. Adriana publicly humiliates the Princess, who takes revenge via one of opera’s most creative murder weapons — a poisoned bouquet of violets.

Giorgio Caoduro as Michonnet in Opera Australia’s 2023 production of ‘Adriana Lecouvreur.’ (Saunders)

The complications of the story may explain why Adriana is so infrequently staged, despite an exquisite, dramatically sensitive score. Opera Australia’s head of music, Tahu Matheson, says Adriana is tricky to program because of its substantial vocal demands, plus “an extremely involved plot replete with twists, turns, zigzags, secrets, deceptions, plots, intrigues, forbidden love, unrequited love, spurned love… what is needed is a great director, a thoughtful and clever production, and, above all, a cast that can embody the drama in a very real, truthful way.”

Cucchi has risen to the challenge with a concept that spans four eras. Her staging begins backstage in a theater in the early 1700s, the milieu of the real-life Adrienne. The second act jumps to the mid-19th century, when Sarah Bernhardt dazzled audiences as the star of Scribe and Legouvé’s tragedy. Adrienne’s story also inspired several silent-film adaptations, and the third act draws on those, highlighting the ascent of cinema in the 1920s and ‘30s. The final act brings the audience to the restless French New Wave movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, with particular reference to the films of Jean-Luc Godard.

It is no accident that the screen features in Cucchi’s interpretation as heavily as the stage. The premiere of her production was disrupted by Covid, so her Adriana first reached audiences as a film on RAI television. (Readers based in Italy, or with a VPN, can still view the result online.) Cucchi was already a seasoned director of opera films, having previously created a choose-your-own-ending TV version of the newly commissioned What Happened to Lucrece. Drawing on this experience, she chose not to simply record the Adriana she had sketched out, but to re-imagine it for the cameras: “I decided to make a real movie instead of the usual streaming that theaters were doing…I had to make a break-down scene by scene, finding all the locations where I would have filmed the opera. We went off-stage to shoot many scenes in the foyers and boxes of the theater. The whole theater became a set. It was a great challenge both for me and for the cast, but at the same time I had the freedom you can have only behind a camera.”

Mezzo-soprano Carmen Topciu as the Princess of Bouillon. (Saunders)

Re-adapting her production to the stage required Cucchi to find new solutions, to adjust her scenes to the fixed proportions of the theater. While much of Adriana takes place on a grand scale, its ending is intimate: Adriana dies in Maurizio’s arms, with the faithful Michonnet looking on. In both film and live versions, Cucchi narrows the scene’s focus further by keeping Maurizio off the stage. He becomes a hallucination of the fading Adriana. She dies in the arms of Michonnet instead, convinced she is embracing Maurizio.

The star losing touch with reality may be a movie trope (very Sunset Boulevard), but Cucchi says it plays well in the house, too, leaving Spanish and Italian audiences of this co-production in tears. As a pianist and librettist, Cucchi is a close reader of scores, and she insists that her unconventional interpretation stems not from directorial conceit but from careful study of the text. Adriana’s final words are not about her love for Maurizio, but about her love for the theater. It is fitting, then, that a fellow thespian, rather than a noble lover, accompanies her final moments.

The Act 3 ballet in the Opera Australia production of ‘Adriana Lecouvreur.’ (Photo by Guy Davies)

Still, separating Adriana and Maurizio defies operatic convention. The genre usually delights in lovers’ farewells. La Traviata deviates from its source material in allowing Violetta and Alfredo a final reunion; Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette cannot resist giving the doomed couple a final duet. Rare is the soprano who dies alone. But far from being depressed by Adriana’s end, Jaho finds meaning to apply to her own life as an artist: “Aren’t we all alone coming in and out of this world? Once you are offstage, no lights, no public, no music, you are left with yourself and your solitude. You can go the dark path of feeling empty and that nothing you did mattered, or you can look on the bright side and feel unbelievably lucky to have lived so many lives through your interpretations.”

Adriana Lecouvreur plays at the Sydney Opera House through March 7. Tickets start at AUD$81. https://opera.org.au/productions/adriana-lecouvreur-sydney