Photo: Royal Opera House.
Today, while looking for something else, I chanced upon the copy of an old programme of the opera Adriana Lecouvreur by Francesco Cilea, which I saw in Paris in 2015 at the Opéra National (Opéra Bastille). It was a great performance by the soprano Angela Gheorgiu and I was delighted to have the opportunity to go, as a guest, to the opening night of this international co-production, involving the Royal Opera House, Opéra Bastille, Gran Teatre Del Liceu and Wiener Staatsoper.
I mentioned my personal encounter with the music of Adriana Lecouvreur in a post I wrote at the time but I did not tell the whole story, I simply talked about the DVD which I bought when I returned. How did I end up in Paris on the opening night?
As I recall, I was engaged in some major spring-cleaning and decluttering, in preparation for my going away to Indonesia a couple of months later, to research my book. I had decided to rent out my place while I was away. I could not get a tenant without doing that thorough massive cleaning and I had to do it myself rather than hire someone to do it for me. I have books everywhere and cannot bear other people touching them without due respect - my books are my best friends, I am dead serious when I say so.
While engaged in this less than glamorous activity, I suddenly got a text message from my then ballet teacher - I used to go to Pineapple Studios for ballet classes, I had only just started sleeking and had not switched to it completely. He was in Paris at the time to work on the choreography of the opera, which he had once danced himself. I had seen some images of him in Paris with the artistic team and liked them, the way people do on social media. I even said I loved opera (mildly, I should add) - people say all sorts of things when commenting on social media, they like, love etc sometimes in a very overstated way.
Anyway, in that text, my ballet tutor said he had spare tickets for the opening night and since I liked opera, would I consider travelling to Paris to attend? It seemed a waste not to use them, as the seats were right at the front. It was a no brainer, I said yes, thinking of the wonderful seats which I would not normally be able to afford, and me being me, I immediately started listening to the music on YouTube,while carrying on with my springcleaning, just to get more familiar with the opera, which I had never seen and of which I knew so little.
I have friends in Paris, which helps, as I could crash out at theirs. I went for the day and spent the morning at Père Lachaise, where I felt the need to pay tribute to the divine Maria Callas, whose ashes are preserved there. Then in the evening, I made my way to the theatre. The seats were as good as could be, I was close to the stage and was able to enjoy the wonderful music and watch the action unfold - and loved the dancing!
At the end of the performance, I lingered on to meet a few people and had a glass of champagne, to celebrate the evening and then went back to my friends' as I would be leaving by Eurostar the following day.
Opéra BastilleThe details of my personal encounter with the opera (thank you again, Adam, for your gift) now out of the way, let's talk a bit about Adriana Lecouvreur as this is a rather unusual story to set to music, inspired by a real-life person. Adriana (Adrienne) was a French actress of the Comédie Française who lived in the 17th/18th century. Adored by the audience, praised by Voltaire, who fell in love with her, and by Diderot, Adrienne had, apparently, a stormy affair with Count Maurice of Saxony and a tug of war with the Princess de Bouillon for the Count's affection. She was poisoned by the Princess, so the story goes, and died very young, but the murder was never proven and she may have just died of exhaustion.
Francesco Cilea, originally from Palmi, Reggio Calabria, in Southern Italy, set his opera to the libretto by Scribe and Legouvé, highlighting the mingling of tragedy and comedy, the varied action and the passionate love of the protagonist for the Count. Cilea's work is usually regarded as part of the 'verismo' opera but it has great sophistication and powerful élan. The music is very nuanced, pleasing, and soulful, duly dramatic in all the right places.
Actresses of the Comédie had an official role to play within an organisation of international renown. They were powerful women, influential public figures, equal to men (and unusually so, in those misogynistic times) whose lives were constantly scrutinised - the most terrible accusation levelled at actresses was that of a loss of virtue, and their moral position constantly oscillated in people's opinion. Their task was to bring the theatre to the people and they were mandated to do so by the King. They did not adhere to the stereotypical views of the time of constrained femininity and they were active participants in public culture. As women, they had unusual agency.
The opera by Cilea is well-loved and it has been performed by great tenors and sopranos, internationally. The romantic twist makes it a favourite of audiences worldwide. It also has a soliloquy by Adriana which is powerfully delivered.
I particularly love the final scene: Adriana forgives her lover for his affair with the Princess, declines to marry him because she is wedded to the theatre and then dies in his arms.
Writing in 1957, Roland Barthes talked of 'la combustion de l'acteur', the actor's combustion, which Adrienne so aptly symbolises: "the actor gives himself over to the demon of the theatre, he sacrifices himself, allows himself to be eaten up from inside by his role".
I prefer seeing Adrienne in this light rather than going along with the story of romantic intrigue: to me, Adrienne is the actor who metaphorically dies for the art.
"Sans aucuns soins, sans étude, sans fard,
des passions vous fûtes l'interprete.
O de l'amour adorable sujette,
n'oubliez pas le secret de votre art"