Even though there were no less than 46 productions all over Europe after its successful première in 1902 (with Enrico Caruso in the title role) until 1911, Adriana Lecouvreur is not part of the standard repertoire today. The Badisches Staatstheater in Karlsruhe has now brought a new production with Katharina Thoma as stage director and Johannes Willig conducting. This particular performance was labelled a gala because of the Italian stars Barbara Frittoli in the title role and tenor Massimo Giordano as Maurizio. American mezzo-soprano Fredrika Brillembourg sang Princess of Bouillion.

The plot is based on the life of the famous French actress Adrienne Lecouvrer, who was extremely successful at the Comédie Française. When she died in 1730 at the age of 38, both her lovers were at her side – the philosopher and author Voltaire, and Maurizio, Count of Saxony. Although there is no proof, rumours of her death through a poisoned posy of violets sent to her by her arch-rival, the Princess of Bouillion, never abated. Both the Princess and Adrienne were very useful to Maurizio (an acknowledged womaniser) in his securing political favour and financial resources in order to further his own military causes. Over the centuries, several authors, such as the prolific Eugène Scribe and Ernest Legouvé, wrote plays about Adrienne’s life and loves. Francesco Cilea asked Arturo Colautti to write the libretto for his opera.

Cilea’s music is colourful, with elaborate instrumentation. Johannes Willig understands this well, giving it a clear melodic form and exercising elegant control, while being a good partner to the singers and never covering them. Katharina Thoma leads her characters through the plot in a straightforward way. The convoluted story of love, intrigue, jealousy and revenge does not need any interpretations and the characters can easily be guided by the emotive musical line.

Barbara Frittoli is known for the empathy she feels for her heroines and she did not disappoint here, singing her famous arias with a well-rounded and warm soprano. Fredrika Brillembourg empowered the haughty figure of Princess de Bouillon with vocal authority, while imbuing her with human frailty when she finds out she has been betrayed. Massimo Giordano gave a handsome and egocentric Maurizio, his voice with just the right amount of steel. Michonnet, the stage manager in unrequited love with Adriana, was sung by Korean baritone Seung-Gi Jung with great empathy.

In this production, Dirk Becker creates a revolving stage emulating a real theatre – the stage out front and the backstage area, where a good deal of the action takes place. Intrigues are forged, gossip exchanged, “billet d’amour” intercepted, while out front the actors declaim their parts, underlined by ballet sequences. It also serves to create a ballroom where the two rivals finally meet and a minimally furnished bedroom where Adriana sings her aria “Poveri Fiori” – a must in every soprano’s repertoire. Irina Bartels has created costumes that put the backstage action squarely in modern times and on-stage costumes that belong to the time of its composition, at the beginning of the 20th century.

Altogether an enjoyable evening of opera, with all the ingredients that make for a satisfying performance – good music-making and singing in a setting that is pleasing to the eye. The fact that this production had no pretensions to the Regietheater trend in German opera houses was an added bonus.