Alphonse Daudet’s Lettres de mon moulin (Letters from my Windmill) began to appear in journals in 1866. Written for a sophisticated, urban readership, these anecdotes of life in Provence added greatly to the young writer’s reputation, and have continued to enjoy classic status. In 1872, Daudet made a play centring on one story about a youth, who is unable to reconcile himself to the discovery that the young woman from Arles that he hopes to marry has another lover, and who kills himself from grief. Bizet composed the incidental music for the first production of L’Arlésienne at the Théâtre du Vaudeville in Paris.

Given the naturalistic stance of Daudet’s story, its contemporary setting amongst a rural community, and its treatment of extraordinary passion in apparently ordinary surroundings, it reveals a kinship with the literary works which were soon explored by a new generation of Italian composers working within the verismo aesthetic. Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana (1890) – the opera whose instant and worldwide success spawned their movement – had similar origins in a stage play derived from a short story by the author Giovanni Verga, the leading exponent of realism in Italian literature.

The composer who saw the operatic potential in Daudet’s play was Francesco Cilea. Born in Calabria in 1866, he was sent at the age of fifteen to the Naples Conservatory, where his obvious talent led to a production of his first opera in 1889. Gina immediately impressed the rapacious publisher Edoardo Sonzogno, who was determined to build up a catalogue of works to rival that of the longestablished firm of Ricordi, and it was he who commissioned Cilea’s next score, La Tilda. Coming in the immediate aftermath of Cavalleria rusticana, and also featuring a low-life theme, La Tilda achieved some success at its Florence premiere in 1892, before winning the praise of the serious-minded critic Eduard Hanslick when staged in Vienna that same year.

For his next opera, Cilea chose the subject of L’arlesiana and spent three years working on it. The up-and-coming tenor Enrico Caruso was engaged for the premiere at Milan’s Teatro Lirico on 27 November 1897 and both he and the opera enjoyed a notable success. Even so, Cilea reduced the original four-act structure to three the following year, and continued to tinker with the work, off and on, until 1937, when the Prelude was added.

Self-critical by nature, Cilea went so far as to remove L’arlesiana from currency for nearly a quarter of a century after the conductor Leopold Mugnone insisted on deleting Rosa Mamai’s aria ‘Esser madre è un inferno’ from a Neapolitan production in 1912 – something that could scarcely be regarded as a shrewd career move. In Daudet’s play, this monologue on the travails of motherhood was the centrepiece of the drama.

The follow-up to L’arlesiana became Cilea’s greatest success. Adriana Lecouvreur (Teatro Lirico, Milan, 1902) was a fictionalised account of the life and death of the great French actress of the eighteenth century, and again premiered with Caruso in the cast. Loved by sopranos and audiences, Adriana has retained a place in the repertoire, with recent stagings at the Wexford Festival, the Royal Opera House, the Met and Opera Holland Park.

Despite a La Scala premiere under Toscanini in 1907, Cilea’s more ambitious Gloria made little headway then or subsequently. With this disappointment, the composer effectively closed his stage career at the age of 40. Of two remaining operatic titles in his catalogue, one is incomplete and the other unperformed. Much of the rest of his long life (he died in 1950, aged 84) was spent in a series of high profile posts in Italy’s leading musical institutions, including a 20-year stint in charge of his alma mater, the Naples Conservatory.

Cilea’s ranking among operatic composers of his generation has been limited by the size of his output, but Adriana continues to impress by virtue of its sense of theatre and technical fluency. In his scene-setting in particular, Cilea demonstrates a true aptitude for musical genre painting, in this instance suggesting the sophisticated artifice of the opera’s flamboyant Baroque ambience with deftness and wit. Entirely different in character, though of similar quality, is L’arlesiana, in which nature is evoked in refined and delicate orchestral colours, and the pastoral setting is suggested by a frequent use of oblique, pastel-shaded harmony. The graceful, folk-like wedding music of the Act III Intermezzo is typically undemonstrative but perfectly judged.

In terms of structure, Cilea’s straightforward use of thematic reminiscence helps bind the score together. While Wagner is clearly present in the Italian composer’s background, there is no obvious influence apart from some Tristan-esque harmonies employed at emotionally stressful moments. Instead, Cilea prefers the traditional Italian response of concentrated patches of lyricism conveying the essence of his characters’ emotions – supremely in Federico’s soulful lament ‘È la solita storia del pastore’, which is rightly considered one of the finest expressions of despair in Italian opera.

Federico’s obsessive grief, and his increasingly faltering response to it, comprise the central strand of the plot, paralleled in the old shepherd’s tale that Baldassarre tells Federico’s brother at the beginning of the opera, during which the child falls asleep just before Federico launches into his lament. Baldassarre’s story is of a wolf savaging a she-goat, who holds it in combat throughout the long night, succumbing (as Federico himself eventually will) only at dawn.

The enigmatic figure of Federico’s younger brother, L’innocente, who utters a prescient scream at the edge of the hayloft window from which Federico will eventually throw himself down in the opera’s final moments, charts an opposite course in the drama to Federico’s own. As the first-born, who is adored by his mother, descends deeper and deeper into madness as a result of uncontrollable grief, the unloved, unregarded younger brother (who doesn’t even have a name to himself) slowly wakens into consciousness of himself and his surroundings in the final scene, causing his mother to fear that with the passing of his passivity, the family’s luck will end – as indeed it seems to.

As in Daudet’s play, we never set eyes on the woman from Arles. The opera is called after her. The plot revolves around her. Yet we never so much as learn her name. Still, we do hear her being abducted by her embittered, aggressive lover Metifio, the drover, both in the inexorable rhythms of his description of the planned crime and, as Federico’s insanity reaches its height, in his wild imagining of that event: a repetition of Metifio’s disturbingly crazed gallop, pressing the young farmer forwards to the abyss. Their musical power notwithstanding, both of these descriptions are fictions, with no reality beyond the minds of the men who have conceived them.

Few works of the Romantic period present such a negative image of romantic love, centred on an illusory fantasy, wolf-like in its tenacious power, driving its victims ever onwards towards their destruction.