Adriana Lecouvreur, the only opera of Cilea's to remain in the repertory, was commissioned by the publisher Edoardo Sonzogno in repsonse to the success of the composer's previous work, L'arlesiana. First produced on 6 November 1902 at Milan's Teatro Lirico with a cast that included Enrico Caruso, it was a great success.
Although set in 18th century Paris, Adriana's mix of comic intrigue and tragedy is nevertheless an example of verismo opera (in which real life situations and characters are emphasised). Cilea's music manages to evoke the elegance of the period without resorting to overt pastiche, though the orchestral writing has been criticised by some for its pianistic overtones.
Popular extracts include Adriana's opening aria Io son l'umile ancella (I am the humble handmaid) which introduces a melody that will serve as her theme throughout the opera, and Maurizio's La dolcissima effigie sorridente (The sweetest smiling representation).
Cilea’s father was a prominent lawyer who hoped that his son would follow him into the profession. But when Francesco was only nine, some of his compositions were shown to Florimo, librarian of the Naples Conservatory and a prominent figure in Neapolitan music. Florimo recommended a formal musical training, and after some preparatory studies Cilea was admitted to the Naples Conservatory in 1881. He studied piano, counterpoint and composition. A few months before his graduation from the Conservatory in 1889 his first attempt at opera, Gina, was produced. As a result of its success, Cilea secured a contract with the publishing house Sonzogno.
The first opera Cilea published with Sonzogno was La Tilda (1892), which was unsuccessful, so Cilea turned to teaching to support himself between operas. His first academic appointment was as Professor of Piano at the Naples Conservatory in 1894. In 1896 he moved to Florence to teach theory and counterpoint at the Reale Istituto Musicale. Cilea’s next opera, L’Arlesiana, was performed in 1897 with the tenor Caruso in the lead role. The performance was more successful, and Cilea late revised and improved it.
But it was Cilea’s next opera, Adriana Lecouvreur, first performed in Milan in 1902, that was his biggest success. Cilea attended its premiere at Covent Garden in 1904. In 1904 Cilea left his teaching post in Florence. His next work, Gloria, was introduced at La Scala in 1907. Although conducted by Toscanini and strongly cast, it did not achieve success, and was withdrawn after only two performances. In 1913 he was appointed director of the Palermo Conservatory and in 1916 he moved to a similar position at the Naples Conservatory, a post he held for twenty years. His last years were spent quietly in declining health and increasing deafness at his villa in Varazze. Amongst Cilea's other works are two orchestral suites, a symphonic poem, Il Canto Della Vita for tenor, chorus and orchestra, Lodi Sinfoniche, and numerous chamber pieces including a Piano Trio, and a Piano Sonata. He also wrote a quantity of songs.