Adriana Lecouvreur

Who is Francesco Cilea?

I have an American friend who, at the mention of Calabria, breaks into song. No, not the popular “Calabria Mia,” written and sung by Mino Reitano, as you might expect, but an opera aria! He croons the work of a Calabrian from a different era and genre, perhaps just as well known in certain circles for his Adriana Lecouvreur as is Reitano for his nostalgic ballad. This Italian opera composer is Francesco Cilea. 


Francesco Cilea

Francesco Cilea in 1910

Francesco Cilea (1866-1950) was born in Palmi, a good-sized town on the Tyrrhenian Sea north of Reggio in the Southern Italian region of Calabria. His decision to dedicate himself to music came at a very early age upon hearing a local band’s rendition of the finale from the opera Norma by Vincenzo Bellini. He went on to study at the Naples Conservatory of Music (Conservatorio San Pietro a Majella), and his final project, a short opera entitled Gina (1889), caught the attention of the music publishers Sonzogno, from whom he received his first commission La Tilda, a verismo opera premiered in Florence in 1892.

Francesco Cilea based his third opera, L’Arlesiana (1897) on the play of Alphonse Daudet. Parenthetically, Georges Bizet composed his well-known incidental music, the L’Arlésienne Suite, for the play’s premier in Paris in 1872. Cilea’s work was first performed at Milan’s Teatro Lirico and while it was not a success, amongst the cast was a young Enrico Caruso, who made his character’s aria memorable.

Cilea’s most successful composition, Adriana Lecouvreur, was premiered in 1902, once again at Milan’s Teatro Lirico. An opera in four acts, the libretto by Arturo Colautti is set in 18th-century Paris and based on a play by Eugène Scribe. Adriana Lecouvreur remains his most enduring work and is a marriage of traditional elements of the Neapolitan school and the lyric French style with regard to a more atmospheric orchestration and the introspective nature of the characters, reminiscent of Jules Massanet.

Francesco Cilea’s final opera, a tragedy entitled Gloria, was premiered in 1907 under Arturo Toscanini at La Scala in Milan. The opera’s lack of success led Cilea to withdraw from composing such large-scale works in favor of music for the piano, chamber music, vocal music and a couple of orchestral works. He also focused his attention on education and served as director of the Vincenzo Bellini Conservatory in Palermo as well as of his alma mater in Naples.


Francesco Cilea

Detail of the Mausoleum of Francesco Cilea in Palmi, Calabria (photo courtesy of Eugenio Crea)

As a composer, Francesco Cilea identified with an innate Italian temperament, which he described as the essence of his music: 

In art, the expressivity of the spirit, that constant and intransigent norm, for me, was always the Italian character, restyled through the development of forms and technique, never suffocated, nor distorted, as the three creations of my fantasy and of my ideal dream, Arlesiana, Adriana and Gloria, attest to and demonstrate.

Cilea also remained attached to his hometown in Calabria, although his career would obligate him to live and work in Italy’s larger metropolitan areas. He articulates his feelings in a letter penned to the mayor of Palmi: 

Mr. Mayor, I beseech you to convey my deepest filial gratitude and love to our beloved Palmi. Tell her that she will abide in my heart with a bond as alive and steadfast as the accumulation of the years hasten my separation from life.


Streets and buildings have been named after Francesco Cilea the entire length of the peninsula, from Trieste to Reggio Calabria. His hometown of Palmi has honored him with an elaborate mausoleum in the historic center, and a number of the composer’s scores, manuscripts and other documents are preserved in the community’s La Casa della Cultura, a complex of museums and libraries. (The above photo looking down the street through the lyre is a detail of the large mausoleum in Palmi. The instrument is in the arms of the muse Erato, a bronze sculpture within the marble monument.)

Francesco Cilea Theater

“Francesco Cilea” Theater on Corso Garibaldi in Reggio Calabria

Nearby Reggio Calabria has named their theater and conservatory after Cilea, and even Turin and Naples have dedicated streets to him.

He is also remembered in concert halls, and his Adriana Lecouvreur is in the repertory of major opera houses throughout the world.


Francesco Cilea

Musical score of Adriana Lecouvreur by Francesco Cilea, 1904

Francesco Cilea’s four-act opera Adriana Lecouvreur is based on the real life story of French actress Adrienne Lecouvreur (1692-1730), who was admired for her acting ability and renowned for her sensational death. Was she poisoned by her rival? The fictionalized account features Adriana in a classic diva role that has been interpreted by such sopranos as Montserrat Caballé, Renata Tebaldi, Renata Scotto and Joan Sutherland. Notably, Plácido Domingo made his 1968 Metropolitan Opera debut in the role of her lover Maurizio, the character originally portrayed by tenor Caruso in the world premier as well as in the first performance at the MET in 1907.

Adriana Lecouvreur returns to the Metropolitan Opera stage in the upcoming 2018-19 season. Eight performances of the work will be presented in New York City between December 31 and January 26. And theatergoers throughout the United States and Canada will be able to attend a live broadcast of the opera in participating movie theaters on Saturday, January 12, 2019 as part of The MET: Live in HD season. Mark your calendars. Until then, recordings of Adriana Lecouvreur and of select arias from the opera are widely available. Happy listening.

For more culture from Francesco Cilea’s hometown, read my blogpost on its very interesting museum Palmi, Calabria: The House of Culture, and for an in-depth look at the beautiful land in the toe of the boot, check out Calabria: The Other Italymy non-fiction book about daily life, history, culture, art, food and society in this fascinating southern Italian region. It’s available in paperback and e-book versions.

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Comments 6

  1. The review in my book of operas gives Adriana Lecouvreur an ‘alpha’. The author’s additional comment is that it is the most underrated opera in his book. The book is “A Night at the Opera” by Sir Denis Forman.
    Enjoyed the information, as always.

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  2. You’ve taught me about Francesco Cilea – never heard of this composer before.
    What I love about Italy and especially Calabria, is that artists are revered and cherished, not looked down on as in some countries – it’s refreshing.

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      You’ve made me think. I know there are streets named after popular artists, such as Frank Sinatra Drive and Dean Martin Dr. in Las Vegas, but I wonder if there’s a Samuel Barber Avenue or a Charles Ives Street somewhere in the US.

  3. Saw and listened at a Live in HD presentation in a theatre in Hailey, Idaho.

    I was unfamiliar with the opera and composer. As it turns out, this has now become one of my favorite operas.

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      Glad you were able to catch the performance and that you have added a new favorite to your list. It’s amazing how much great music and art there is, which for whatever reason has remained less known or less popular, so there’s always something new to discover. Buon ascolto! Happy listening!

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