When the real Adriana Lecouvreur died in Paris on March 30, 1730, she was only 37. Rumors spread that she had been poisoned by the Duchesse de Bouillon, her rival for the love of Maurice de Saxe.
At the deathbed, a few friends, including Maurice de Saxe and Voltaire, yes that Voltaire, gathered and mourned the passing of the brilliant, young actress, the star of the leading dramatic company in Paris, Comédie Francaise. Only two weeks before, Lecouvreur performed the role of Jocasta in Voltaire’s Oedipe, although she felt ill throughout.
Irritated by Parisian gossip-mongers, Voltaire paid for an autopsy. It was inconclusive but suggested the possibility of pneumonia. Voltaire wrote a eulogy and lamented that Lecouvreur’s preference for burial in Saint-Sulpice was denied. She was, after all, just an actress and considered excommunicate. Her body went into a pauper’s grave by the Seine.
Such was the scandal that surrounded a celebrity actress in Paris in the early 18th century. Lecouvreur’s story took on mythical proportions, not unlike the hype surrounding Marilyn Monroe’s death in 1962, when at age 36, she died from an apparent overdose. Rumors, stories, crime dramas, plays and an opera emerged. Lecouvreur’s true and tumultuous entanglement with an aristocrat and a jealous duchesse created a love triangle fit for storytelling.
In the early 20th century, a minor Italian composer, Francesco Cilea (1866–1950), capitalized on the lingering popularity of the tale. With librettist Arturo Colautti, Cilea based his new opera on one of the most popular play versions by Eugène Scribe and Ernest Legouvé. Crafted in 1849, “Adriana Lecouvreur” was one of Scribe’s well-made plays and set a melodramatic template that embellished the original story. Like the play, the opera’s libretto added a secondary love triangle, a besotted stage manager, a suspect bouquet of violets and plenty of French froufrou.
Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur” premiered in 1902 in Milan, and it remains in modern repertoire for various reasons: The music may not be Puccini, but it’s noteworthy, divas of every era have begged to sing the lead and audiences seem to love a schmaltzy potboiler.
The Metropolitan Opera staged the work in 1963 with a lavish production designed for soprano Renata Tibaldi. Now, with a smart, new production by Sir David McVicar, the Met has brought back the composer’s only claim to fame.
Set designer Charles Edwards has created various 18th century locations: a replica of a Baroque theater, the Maison 42 rue Rouge where lovers meet, a room in the Bouillon Palace, and finally, Lecouvreur’s Paris apartment.
The Met’s dream cast includes Russian soprano Anna Netrebko in the lead with tenor Piotr Beczala as Maurizio, her erstwhile lover.
In the opera, he masquerades as a soldier and conceals his real identity as a count. The fire-breathing mezzo Anita Rachvelishvili completes the smoking triangle. In Scribe’s play and Cilea’s opera, she’s been promoted to princess. Her husband, the Prince de Bouillon (bass-baritone Maurizio Muraro) is enmeshed in his own love triangle. And, he has a fixer, the Michael Cohen of the opera, the Abbé Bouret, sung by tenor Carlo Bosi.
As Anthony Tomasini wrote in the New York Times on Jan. 1, after the Met’s opening night: “For all the convoluted strands of this story, ‘Adriana’ is at its core a torturous love triangle. Ms. Netrebko, Mr. Beczala and Ms. Rachvelishvili claimed those roles so tenaciously that the drama bristled with passion and danger.”
Here are final credentials to consider before making your way to Fort Lewis College on Saturday morning. The new version of “Adriana Lecouvreur” is a co-production of the Met; the Royal Opera House, London; Teatre del Liceau, Barcelona; Wiener Staatsoper; San Francisco Opera; and L’Opera National de Paris.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.