Opera Profile: Francesco Cilea’s Diva Showcase ‘Adriana Lecouvreur’

By David Salazar

Francesco Cilea isn’t one of opera’s most famed composers. While he created his fair share of works, only one lives on in the standard repertoire.

That opera is, of course, “Adriana Lecouvreur,” a tragedy that has become a vehicle for some of the greatest sopranos in the history of opera. The work premiered at the Teatro Lirico of Milan on Nov. 6, 1902, with soprano Angelica Pandolfini as the title character. Enrico Caruso appeared as her lover Maurizio while Edvige Ghibaudo portrayed the Princess de Bouillon.

Since then a number of major stars have taken on the opera, including Renata Tebaldi, Angela Gheorghiu, Montserrat Caballé, Raina Kabaivanska, Mirella Freni, Joan Sutherland, Anna Netrebko, Plácido Domingo, and Jonas Kaufmann.

Short Plot Summary

The Prince of Bouillon is at a performance where he intercepts a letter sent from the actress Duclos to Maurizio, a soldier. The letter includes a request from the actress to see Maurizio at the Prince’s villa later that evening. Maurizio, the Count of Saxony, is the lover of the actress Adriana Lecouvreur. The Prince invites all to a party that evening, including Adriana.

The Princess of Bouillon, not Duclos, is actually the one who is waiting for Maurizio to express her love. He appears and tells her that he no longer loves her. She insists on finding out the name of her new lover, but he refuses. The Prince and Abbé arrive at the rendez-vous and Maurizio hides the Princess. He later asks Adriana to aid him in helping the woman escape and when the chance comes the two confront one another out of suspicion over their respective roles in Maurizio’s life. The Princess drops a bracelet, which is discovered by the stagehand Michonnet, who is in love with Adriana. He gives it to her.

Maurizio has been imprisoned for debt while the Princess continues searching for her new rival. Meanwhile, the Prince has stored a powerful poison that the government has asked him to analyze. At a reception, the Princess grows confident in her suspicions that Adriana is the woman she is after. Maurizio appears and the two women recognize each other as rivals. The Princess asks Adriana to recite for the guests and the actress uses the final lines of text to make an attack on the Princess, who lusts for revenge.

Adriana, who is alone and miserable, receives a casket with a note from Maurizio. It makes her unwell as she sees faded violets she once gave him at the theater. Maurizio arrives and asks her to marry him. He also tells her he didn’t send the flowers, making them all realize that they were poisoned. She dies.

Famous Musical Numbers

The opera’s most notable moments are the solo arias given to its major characters. Adriana’s “Io son l’umile ancella” is arguably the most famous piece in the entire opera, a showpiece for any major diva. She also gets the heartbreaking “Poveri Fiori” in the final act of the work.

Maurizio gets two famous arias, the loving “La dolcissima effigie” and the heartbroken “L’anima ho stanco.” Finally, the Princess gets her showstopping “Acerba voluttà.”

Watch and Listen

There are numerous major interpreters of the work and among them was the Spanish diva Montserrat Caballé, who is heard here with frequent collaborator José Carreras and Angelo Mori.


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