Diva with a capital D

Article by Neil Fisher

The allure of Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur, still rarely performed outside Italy, is easily confused with a basic need that many opera fans share: the demand for high camp. Yet what really fuels this 1902 opera is not the chance to see the world’s most bloody-minded soprano (whoever she may be in each generation) “play herself”: the Diva with a capital D walking directly from the dressing room to the stage with no need to pause for a costume change. There’s no doubt that the heroine of Cilea’s opera is a stage animal. Yet it is the composer’s absorption in a world divided between professional performers and their moneyed, noble patrons that provides this fascinating opera’s piquancy. The smell of theatre’s greasepaint contrasts with the social ascent up the greasy pole.

Oddly, we now call another opera about a diva, Tosca, a verismo work – meaning truth – for its torture, murders and suicides, as well as its unending musical blasts at the solar plexus, while Cilea’s piece, written just two years later, is classed as the sentimental melodrama for its headier harmonic aromas and because Adriana’s demise strikes us as absurd. One diva with a capital D, Angela Gheorghiu – now a veteran of several Lecouvreurs – recently hit the nail on the head on this one, in her inimitable style. “Adriana Lecouvreur dies in the end from a poisoned bouquet. A smell? Come on, what kind of death is that? But what’s important from the story is that she, Adriana, was actually a real person.” Her real story may not be truthfully depicted in the opera, but Cilea’s fascination for a woman caught between two worlds is not just heartfelt, but authentic too.

Lecouvreur, who was born in 1692 and died in 1730, moved in a world that in certain ways was like ours: actresses fitted in just below royalty as the most talked about and celebrated personalities. Their circumstances, however, were more precarious. Lecouvreur was the daughter of a hatter and won her big break at Paris’s most prestigious theatre company, the Comédie Française – at the time clinging onto a shaky monopoly on spoken drama – as Crébillon’s Electra and in the next ten months performed 139 times with the company. She had worked her way up partly through strategic relationships: she had her first child with a provincial actor, her second with a well-connected magistrate. When she became the lover of Maurice of Saxony, therefore (Maurizio in the opera) she was upfront about her past, telling him in a letter: “Unfortunately I am not succumbing to love’s charms for the first time in my life.”

The Comédie Française was supposed to be the crème de la crème of French theatre, but by the reign of Louis XV it was on shakier financial foundations, not helped by a 1701 official act that banned “indecent expressions and postures” on the stage. With capacity for scandal drastically limited, therefore, Lecouvreur offered a different sort of appeal at the box office: an acting style that was fresher, more nuanced, and, especially, more tear-jerking, particularly in the old warhorses of the repertoire such as Racine’s Phèdre. It was this skill that won her the great admiration of her champion and, after her death, most devoted mourner, the poet and philosopher Voltaire. Lecouvreur’s fame and talents won her more tangible financial gains than just the idolisation of poets, however. At her death her estate was worth 300,000 livres, a considerable sum and one that also reflected the favourable conditions for actors as esteemed as Lecouvreur. Actors admitted to the Comédie Française as full members became part-owners, allowing them to take the lion’s share of the profits while the company itself might founder.

Maurizio arrives at Lecouvreur’s bedside in Act IV of Cilea’s opera to beg her forgiveness and ask her to marry him. In reality, they were lovers but this eligible bachelor and royal heir would have been unlikely to propose to an actress. It was also true that there was an amorous triangle between Maurice, Lecouvreur and the Duchess of Bouillon, the real life inspiration for the opera’s villainess. The Duchess, whose husband was some forty years older than her, was attracted to the dashing military hero and in 1729, while Lecouvreur was touring with the Comédie, he invited the Duchess to stay with him.

At around the same time, Lecouvreur was invited to a mysterious rencontre in the Luxembourg Gardens. There she met a humpback priest, the Abbé Bouret, who confessed to her that the Duchess had asked him to give her a magical potion – actually some tablets – that would make her fall out of love with Maurice. Suspicious, she had the pills given to a dog, which died. A public scandal duly erupted, engulfing the police, the court and the theatre.

Poison may be the most convenient way to arrange a death in opera, but plots involving deadly philtres or pills were very real in late 17th and early 18th century France. Indeed, long before the name bouillon had become primarily associated with stock cubes; it had literally more poisonous associations. A previous Duchess de Bouillon, in fact, had been arrested and imprisoned for several months in the 1670s for her part in the so-called Affair of the Poisons (an enormous scandal that led to more than 30 executions). Her successor to the title claimed innocence of the Lecouvreur scandal: the Duchess of Bouillon even went to watch the actress in the title role of Phèdre in an attempt at reconciliation. Here the splendid confrontation that occurs in Act III of the opera played out: the affronted Lecouvreur hurled out the lines from the Racine play directly at the Duchess’s box, implying that it was the Duchess and not Phèdre who was “one of these bold-faced women/who calmly revel in their deep disgrace/ with not a blush upon their brazen face”.

Adriana was taken ill in the middle of a performance just a few days later. She recovered enough to return to the stage, but died around a month afterwards, reportedly in the arms of her greatest admirers: Voltaire and Maurice. The finger of rumour now pointed at the Duchess and even Voltaire paying for an autopsy – which did not reveal any evidence of foul play – could not dislodge the accusations that Lecouvreur had been poisoned. Far too late, the Abbé admitted years later he had been so desperate to meet the actress that he had made up the whole story about the Duchess and the tablets in the first place. By this time it was impossible to defuse the story of the actress, the duchess, and the poisoning. Cue the violets.

Far from wipe off the accretions that the story had collected, Cilea revels in the thickets of romance and murder that had already seeped into Scribe and Legouvé’s 1849 tragic play, Adrienne Lecouvreur, from which he adapted his opera. It’s to the composer’s great credit, however, that he grasps the real tension of Lecouvreur’s entanglement in the world of aristocratic mores, enmeshing his poetry loving heroine in a plot in which she does not know the script.

He does this by tilting the dramatic axis of the opera. Paradoxically, the opera’s most grounded and honest realism is expressed in the world of the theatre and its denizens, most of all in the wise and tender contributions of the stage manager, Michonnet (a uniquely sympathetic character in the operatic canon), and the ensemble of actors, while the moments of most heightened, “operatic” excess actually come not from Lecouvreur, but her scheming rival, now upgraded from Duchess to Princess. Musically, you only need to contrast Adriana’s two arias, her humble entrance monologue on the craft of acting, ‘Io son l’umile ancella’, and her Act IV lament, ‘Poveri fiori’, with de Bouillon’s barnstorming call to arms, the Act II opener ‘Acerba voluttà’, to locate the opera’s two emotional planes.

Of course Maurizio’s swooning romances and swaggering braggadocio can be seen as the usual tenor preening, but they are also evidence of a man on the make, on the take – and very possibly a total fake. The Princess gets the benefit of his tales of outrageous military triumph (15 against 1!), while Lecouvreur, less a strategic ally than a flattering notch on his bedpost, gets the slushy stuff. From the gossipy Abbé to the philandering Prince, these are all professional poseurs, duplicitous by nature. For them the show never stops.

So where does that leave the professional actress, Adriana Lecouvreur? Sadly deaf to the wise imprecations of Michonnet, who advises her in Act II that “we [actors] are poor people. Let the grand ones have their jokes – especially while they’re not paying us.” Instead, Lecouvreur allows herself to be played first by her lover, Maurizio, and then by the Princess herself. Both have the higher ground, despite Lecouvreur’s fame. She, as the Princess calls her, is a mere “commediante” (a word that also means ‘sham’ as well as actress), a queen only in the world of the theatrical imagination.

At her death, the real Adrienne Lecouvreur may have been wealthy, but she was denied Christian rites because of her insalubrious profession. Instead, she was buried in quicklime on a building site near the river Seine – a fate that moved Voltaire to write a poem savaging the French establishment for disgracing a woman who would have been venerated in ancient Greece. Whether he would admire Cilea’s telling of her story as much probably depends on whether the singer-actress in the title role understands what it really is to play the tragedienne – and not just a diva with a capital D.

Neil Fisher is the deputy arts editor of The Times and has written for the newspaper on classical music and opera since 2004