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Francesco Cilea: Francesco Cilea (b. Palmi, 26 July 1866; d. Verazza, 20 Nov 1950).
It is appropriate that the tender-hearted Francesco Cilea should remain world famous for his Adriana Lecouvreur, an opera of delicate sentiment and refined lyricism. The son of a lawyer, he was devoted to music as a child but lacked the force of character to have made his own way. He was fortunately given the necessary encouragement by Francesco Florimo, the friend of Verdi and an influential official of the Naples Conservatoire. His first opera, Gina, produced in 1889 towards the end of his student days in Naples, was so highly regarded that he was commissioned to write La Tilda for the Teatro Pagliano, Florence, in 1892. The success of these early operas in no way persuaded him to forsake the piano, on which his studies had been concentrated, and he continued to compose prolifically for this instrument. Then in 1897 his opera L'Arlesiana, based on the play by Alphonse Daudet, was premiered in Milan, giving the tenor Enrico Caruso his first important success. In the meantime Francesco Cilea had been appointed Professor of Composition at the Reale Istituto Musicale in Florence, enjoying the first taste of academic life that suited his character so well.
Five years after L'Arlesiana Francesco Cilea produced the masterpiece which was quickly to become popular all over the world, Adriana Lecouvreur. The play by Scribe and Legouve on which the opera is based flagrantly misrepresents the true story of the actress Adrienne Lecouvreur and her ruthlessly ambitious lover Maurice, Comte de Saxe. Adrienne, one of the most distinguished of French tragediennes, reigned for thirteen years as undisputed queen of the Comedie Francaise, numbering among her friends half of Louis XV's court and notable men of letters including Voltaire. When she died at the age of thirty-eight it was rumoured, with no real foundation, that she had been poisoned by one of the Comte's other mistresses. The play sentimentalises her character and that of the Comte, and makes a posy of poisoned violets the cause of her death. This romantic treatment of Adrienne's life was tailor-made for Francesco Cilea's individual style, and he wrote exquisitely poignant music for his heroine, the melting melody of her aria 'Io son l'umile ancella' (in which she declares that as an actress she is the servant of the arts) haunting the whole opera. The entire score is constructed with rare ingenuity, providing an endless flow of melody with a highly personal flavour.
Although Francesco Cilea was only thirty-six when he achieved the height of success with Adriana Lecouvreur, and was to live another forty-eight years, he composed only one more opera, Gloria (1907). He seems to have realised he was not made of sufficiently stern stuff for a career in the turbulent world of opera, choosing instead to take up a succession of professorial appointments and turn his creative talents to chamber and orchestral music. The irony of his life was that he achieved immortality while comparatively young and in return gave immortality to an early 18th-century actress whose name would otherwise be known today only to theatre historians.
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