The libretto to Francesco Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur is considered among the most convoluted plots ever set to music. In this revival of his elegant and traditional setting, director Lorenzo Mariani chose to be as linear as possible, not overloading the story with useless intrusions. Nicola Rubertelli created tall mobile platforms shifting on stage following the action. These stylised scenes convincingly took us into the era of the French rococo. Also, they well combined with beautiful period costumes by Giusi Giustino.

Adrienne Lecouvreur really existed as an 18th-century actress whose greatest admirer was Voltaire, who composed a poem on her death, in which he blamed the Church for denying her a Christian burial in the church of Saint-Sulpice, because she was an actress, and as such excommunicate. In spite of her historical character though, the events the libretto narrates are largely fictional. Adriana Lecouvreur is one of the Italian verismo operas (though the least realistic among all), and, though it is not as well known as Cavalleria rusticana and Pagliacci, their straightforward sentimentalism and melodramatic intensity are very alike.

To many, Cilea's masterpiece is quite unfamiliar nowadays, but at the time of the opera's 1902 première in Milan, it was a triumph, mostly because of Enrico Caruso's interpretation of Maurizio. However, from Adriana’s humble statement about the actress role (“Io son l’umile ancella”) to her death, poisoned by violets, it showcases many glorious melodies. Cilea creates a high degree of passion and emotion. The more you hear it, the more you may be persuaded that it is more worthy of being in the regular operatic repertoire than is normally admitted.

The principals in this production, conducted by Daniel Oren, were excellent, lovely and passionate. Barbara Frittoli held the stage as Adriana with beautiful singing and superb acting. She sang at her best mainly in duets, where she showed her animosity towards Luciana d'Intino's Princesse de Bouillon, or when she dies in Maurizio’s arms. She excellently recited the monologue from Racine’s Phèdre, mimicking the grandiosity and exaggerated acting of theatrical divas of the past. There were plenty of good things in her interpretation. She sang her two big arias “Io son l’umile ancella” and “Poveri fiori” with a combination of emotion and poise, and was successfully welcomed by the audience.

D’Intino was also delightful as the jealous princess, her powerful, solid voice rendering the nuances of a complex character. She sang with vigour with a voice of considerable size and range, starting from her entrance with a perfect execution of “Acerba voluttà”.

There were some initial reservations about Gustavo Porta’s Maurizio. His tone was not so fine at the beginning, but became warmer and more impassioned in the later acts. The tenor brought plenty of energy to the role though, and he best succeeded in shifting from the tactless dandy we see in Act I to the impassioned and tender lover by the end of Act IV.

Alessandro Corbelli as Michonnet, the impresario who secretly loves Adriana, was not so incisive at the start, but as his voice warmed up it became quite effective, and he sang with taste and finesse; a good character study. Carlo Striuli was finely upstanding as the Prince de Bouillon, a role which is definitely “in his wheelhouse”.

The San Carlo Orchestra played with their usual feeling and passion, conducted by Oren, who was in commanding form, displaying intelligent musicianship and phrasing. The Act III ballet was classical, as it should be, and the dancers moved with grace and beauty.