A Stage History

Article by Tom Sutcliffe

Francesco Cilea’s backstage opera.  Adriana Lecouvreur was launched with a bang exactly 100 years ago.  Caruso played the romantic lead Maurizio, the disguised Count of Saxony with whom star actress Adriana is dangerously in love.  He had launched his own career just five years earlier at 24 in Cilea’s previous success L’arlesiana, playing the fecklessly romantic role of Federico.  The passionate title part of Adriana Lecouvreur has appealed to a succession of divas in the course of the 20th century.  Renata Scotto did one of the most successful recordings (1977, CBS/Sony) opposite Placido Domingo.  Renata Tebaldi teamed up with Mario del Monaco for Decca in 1962.  Augusta Oltrabella, Maria Caniglia and Magda Olivero all sang the part with great success, and Callas included an aria from the opera (“lo son l’umile ancella”, I am but the humble servant of the writer’s genius) in her first recital in Athens on 21 July 1943.

Near the end of her career Joan Sutherland too tackled the opera in extravagant style (San Diego 1983, Sydney 1984), and then went on to record it in 1988 with Carlo Bergonzi – something of a veterans’ rally at that stage for both of them since Adriana is a young woman when the Princess of Bouillon murders her, by the exquisite means of sprinkling poison scent on a posy of old violets.  In her autobiography Sutherland quotes a review approvingly which rather conveys the impression that her Adriana was simply another role in a long line of grand vehicles: “Dame Joan richly dressed in Michael Stennett’s gorgeous costumes not only looked and acted like a theatre star but sang magnificently.”

Of course, Adriana Lecouvreur is not a made-up character, but (to put her name back into French) Adrienne Lecouvreur was somebody who actually lived and achieved extraordinary fame at the Comédie Française in the early (regency) years of the reign of Louis XV. She was a sensation in much the way that Vivien Leigh was on the London Stage in the 1930s and 1940s, or Sarah Siddons in the 18th-century London.  There is nobody like that today in British theatre, because actresses these days don’t sustain continuous careers in live theatre any more – since they can make more than enough money in films, if they are successful, without working nearly so hard – and the audience for live theatre is reduced and fragmented and no longer owns its stars as it used to. Anyway, actresses with potentially the right standing, such as Vanessa Redgrave and Diana Rigg, simply don’t play that game.  In the not so distant past, a real idol of the theatre would be greeted on her first entrance with warm applause.  The audience, anticipating the delight of the personality they were about the enjoy, would have wanted to let her know that she was delightfully welcome among a throng of her lovers, and the way she handled this infinitely sweet (and utterly non-naturalistic tribute demonstrated the kind of theatrical taste and artistic commitment that she possessed.  (How opera singers take curtain calls is another of those moments of truth about their inner personality, where one sees what they are made of.)

For Adrienne, looking and acting like a theatre star (which does sound like something a drag queen would do) was exactly what she did NOT do in real life.  On May 14, 1717 when she made her Paris debut as Electra, after a helpful try-out season in Strasbourg, the audience, as history reports it, was spellbound by the naturalism of her delivery and the simplicity of her appearance.  This was a time when glitz and baroque feathered head-dresses were the norm in classic plays.

Adrienne appeared in just a white satin robe with bar shoulders visible beneath the tresses of her own auburn hair.  She was 25 at the the time.  Just 13 years later she was to die at the height of her fame.  Voltaire (who in Cilea’s opera is subsumed into the fictional character of her stage manager Michonnet) adored her work.  As her last theatrical triumph she adorned his Oedipe,  playing the role of Jocaste.  When the Church refused her a Christian burial as it tended to do with actors, because it hated the competing entertainment provided by the theatre and anyway everybody knew actors and actresses were notorious tarts and pimps and gigilos, her body had to be shoved hurriedly into a marshy quicklime pit near the Rue de Bourgogne.  As Voltaire penned a bitterly regretful elegy in her memory. After all, as he well knew, in London just a few weeks earlier the incomparable theatre star Anne Oldfield, a star as bright as Adrienne in the constellation of the London stage, had been interred within the precincts of the national shrine, Westminster Abbey – she being the actress on the London stage whose English he was most easily able to follow.

Adrienne was the daughter of a hat-maker true to his trade, named Couvreur or Coverer, in English) whose business was not prospering.  This can hardly have been a surprise at a time when everybody wealthy in France was much more interested in wearing vast curly wigs.  The hat business for makers involved a serious health risk because of the mercury used for curing the felt from which hats were usually made.  Adrienne’s father was a mad hatter who got much madder.  As a desperate measure, he took his family to live in a cheap lodging near the Comédie Française , a now famous institution which then had only existed for a couple of decades.  Adrienne had already displayed a talent for recitation and – what with her father’s mad rages and drunken brutalities – it was easy and convenient for her to be stage struck and to watch Mlles Duclos and Desmares at their famous work.  Quite soon, trying her luck at amateur theatre, she attracted the attention of a successful but very ugly comic actor.

Playwright, Marc-Antoine Legrand who groomed her for stardom, changed her name by adding a distinguished “Le” at the front, and sent her on an extended provincial apprenticeship as a travelling player.  Something of Legrand is present in Cilea’s character Michonnet, which in effect conflates him and Voltaire.  Adrienne, like many in her profession, profited initially from the casting couch, and when very young entered a relationship with Legrand.  But there’s no doubt that her attitude to the business of performance chimed with his.

Legrand was a strong believer in theatrical realism.  His greatest success, a play called Cartouche, was all about a famous robber.  He wrote it in a wild rush after the arrest of the criminal, and he sent the actor who was to play the role off to visit the condemned man in the cell so he could be instructed in the finer details of how a footpad got the public to stand and deliver.  Isn’t it so true that in the theatre every fashion comes around again sometime? The authenticity and naturalism of Adrienne’s acting, the secret of her popularity on stage and her wide fame, related very closely to the principles that informed Legrand’s theatrical work, and that later were to make David Garrick (of Huguenot descent) into one of the most famous actors the world has seen.

After her death Adrienne Lecouvreur’s reputation did not fade, thanks in part to the advocacy of Voltaire.  But her apotheosis into a glorious role for other actresses took more than a century.  It was the famous playwright and librettist Eugene Scribe and his occasional collaborator Ernest Legouvé who decided to use Adrienne as a vehicle for her even more famous successor at the Comedié Française, Rachel – born Elisa Félix and from a poor Jewish family.

Rachel excelled in the same repertoire as Adrienne – both played Phèdre memorably, as later did Bernhardt whose fame spread far wider thanks to photography and modern transport.  The idea of creating a play about Adrienne for Rachel must have struck Scribe as extraordinarily apt. but what probably made the project irresistible was the grand social ethos in which Adrienne thrived, and the political ambition of her most famous lover Hermann-Maurice, Count of Saxony and Marshal of France.  Scribe was able to turn a slice of genuine backstage life into a believable if melodramatised romance.  Whether the exact details that Scribe wove into the play can be trusted is naturally a lot more doubtful.  The Marshall was and remains a famous military hero, born in 1696 to unmarried parents, a Swedish countess and Augustus, Elector of Saxony who was elected King of Poland very shortly afterwards.  After Adrienne’s death he was to win many battles for the French against the English and our allies in the War of Austrian Succession, capturing Prague in 1741 and assembling an invasion army at Dunkirk in 1744 in support of the Young Pretender.  He died in 1750 an his monument by Pigalle in St Thomas’s Church, Strasbourg, is one of the most extraordinary baroque tombs to be seen anywhere.

Maurice’s memoirs and letters document his private life rather well.  He visited the Comedié Française while on leave from the army in 1720 and, seeing Adrienne’s performance in Phèdre, became an insatiable fan.  Eventually she assisted his ambition more than he could ever have anticipated by raising huge sums (30,000 louis) with which he was able to pay for an army to maintain his claim to Courland (Latvia), even though he had refused to marry the Duchess of Courland, Anna Ivanovna, who had offered him her hand as part of the deal when he was elected Duke.

Maurice’s first taste of battle was at Malplaquet at the age of 12. He married an heiress the Countess of Loeben at 18, but ran through her money like lightning and was so blatantly unfaithful that she got an annulment.  After his Courland adventure, he returned to France penniless, trying to reaffirm his claim to the Duchy, as he was to continue to do long after the death of Adrienne.  The ravishing Duchess of Bouillon took a shine to him, but his commitment to Adrienne held him back.  The Duchess plotted to poison Adrienne.  When her nasty scheme was uncovered, Maurice refused to believe it and at a performance of Phèdre Adrienne threw a prop sword at him while pointedly emphasising a line about loyalty in a way anybody who knew the gossip would understand.  A few days later Adrienne while acting the same play went in once again for significant double-entendre, this time addressing some lines pointedly at the box in which the Duchess of Bouillon was sitting enjoying the show.  It was a famous insult – just as it is in the opera.  But, in real life, Adrienne’s death took place some months later, caused by dysentery.

Much of this is grist to the tragi-comic romance devised by Scribe for Rachel.  The intrigues at the end of Adrienne’s life are rearranged more than a little and the Duke and Duchess of Bouillon are upraded to Prince and Princess.  In life there were other figures such as the famous and much longer established star of the Comedié Française Marie- Anne Duclos, whose ranting stiff delivery and jealousy of the younger actress’s style and personality wee well recorded.  But the minor characters in the play and in the opera are insignificant,  though the Prince of Bouillon’s invented interest in chemistry provides the means for the final denouement – the poisoning of Adrienne.  (In the opera the scene filling in this bit of the plot is usually cut.  Scribes play gave Rachel a wonderful vehicle, as intended.  For audiences in 1849 the events of just over a century earlier seemed contemporary compared to the ancient classical characters in Racine and Corneille for which Rachel was famed.  The committee of the Comedié Française eventually agreed to stage the work for with Rachel in the title role, and a vehicle for the great actresses of the era was definitively established.  Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse both excelled in the role, though Bernhardt decided after the turn of the 20th century to write her own improved version of the story.

And it was at almost exactly the same time, 50 years after Scribe, that Arturo Colautti started his adaptation for Cilea, who seemed to many critics to be one of the most gifted composer of the Giovane Scuola that included, Puccini, Leoncavalio and Giordano.  Cilea was a Calabrian whose mother went mad and whose lawyer father died young – leaving his juvenile son responsible for a large family.  He had a natural fluency and lyrical ease in his music that perfectly suited the joined-up style and theatrical naturalism of the new verismo taste.  His economical re-use of melodic elements has been criticised.  But, effectively, the musical world he creates for his scenes of discussion and dramatic interpretation is a kind of continuum.  In the dramatic flow one does not break away too often in order to enjoy an aria, distinct and posed for the display of the singer though there are some famous out-takes that have passed into the operatic concert repertoire.  Cilea’s intention is to turn out the story as if it is a play, with the music flavouring and pacing the exchanges and the events.

Such urbane and personable musical gifts are considerable.  Cilea attracted the support of Bellini’s long-lived advocate Florimo when he was just nine.  His first attempt at opera, written while he was a student, earned him his publishers Sonzogno.  But real success did not come at once.  He took to teaching to make money, becoming a pianoforte professor at Naples Conservatoire when he was 28, moving to Florence two years later to teach theory and counterpoint, and then – after a break of a few years while his two successful operas were doing all right, and after a short while at the Palermo Conservatoire – back to Naples as director of the establishment.

Yet why did Cilea fade out as an opera composer?  And why are his two successful works, both of which have found advocacy at Opera Holland Park such very occasional visitors to an opera repertoire that has all over the place (and despite the lack of newly composed work over the last 30 years) been generally expanding enormously?  The evidence is clear that Cilea was unassertive as a musical professional, that he lacked the killer instinct, the nose for meaningful drama that all the great and successful opera composers have possessed.  Benjamin Gigli referred to his attractive “artistic integrity… a little old fashioned, but what appealed to me was his innocence… he was a shy man, more than a little deaf and terrified of the limelight.  Tito Gobbi talked of “a gentle and delicate composer his melodies extending smoothly as he describes the sunset, nightfall and sunrise.  His music is full of compassion.”

The crucial issue with verismo seems clear.  What is the point of telling the truth about a slice of life and making it all seem as real as possible, if what happens doesn’t really possess a profound dramatic significance?  L’arlesiana is a story that really doesn’t have anything to say that matters, however you look at it.   The so-called tragedy that afflicts the family of Rosa Mamai is just the unrealistic and uncompetitive romancing which her son Federico is unable to shake off.  Instead of ignoring her oppressive strictures and heading off to Arles to make the best he can of the girl he fancies, whether she’s a slut or not, he mopes and moons and eventually kills himself.  The raunchy girl, of course, never appears – rather unfairly.

Adriana Lecouvreur is an opera about an actress famous for her naturalistic acting and speaking on stage.  However, when we first meet her she is declaiming lines to herself in a very artificial fashion, as if an actress of such genius would need to try out her projection in that way.  Furthermore, speaking on stage is one of the things that opera singers do worst of all – and when they speak you can be sure they do in a way that’s intended to project and make the words as audible as singing – but certainly doesn’t make them credibly conversational.  This being an opera, Adriana mostly doesn’t speak but sings.

The critical moment of the whole drama as presented in the opera is when she delivers lines with her eyebrow raised in a particular direction, nudge-nudge wink-wink, in order to get under the skin of her dangerous rival.  It has to be a weakness of the opera that she doesn’t deliver the central coup de grâce in her singing, but using the area of her theatrical technique (the speaking voice) that is least effective and affecting.

Comparing with the unerringly potent plots of Puccini’s operas, the motive for Cio-Cio-San’s suicide, the inevitability of Mimi’s fatal consumption, the necessary but hopeless revenge taken by Tosca, the absurd gamble of Calaf, Adriana’s sniffing of the fragrance of a posy of fading violets which she herself earlier gave to Maurizio (and which he had passed on to the Princess of Bouillon as a little friendly gesture) seems inconsequential – even if it is actually the cause of death.  There are those who can’t take the death of Luisa Miller in Schiller’s Kabale and Liebe seriously, because her beloved Ferdinand, the Major, gives her the poison which he also drinks in a glass of lemonade.  But the confrontation in Adriana Lecouvreur with fate and wickedness as personified by the Princess de Bouillon (not a great name either, in these days of naked chefs) lacks credible motivation in either direction.  In the story Cilea sets, the emotional commitment of the characters (their passionate love which we know must exist) has to be taken largely on trust until the final scene of Adriana’s death when we have a demonstration of the depth of their affection for one another.  It is not these to be experienced in the course of the drama.  Neither Verdi nor Puccini would ever have allowed the central issue to seem so tame an experience until so late.  It’s the killer instinct that an opera composer must have, to be able to recognise an emotional crossroads that will really tell – and have the ability to invest it with music that screws up the tension at that point to a climactic degree.