Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Francesca da Rimini at the Metropolitan Opera

It is always a pleasure when New York City’s Metropolitan Opera revives a seldom-heard opera.  So it was with great pleasure that I caught the recent revival of Riccardo Zandonai’s little-heard Francesca da Rimini last Saturday. 

The story of Francesca derived from a brief episode in Dante’s Inferno that is based on historical fact, and has inspired adaptations in a variety of genres over the centuries.  Italian writer Gabriele d’Annunzio (1863-1938) wrote a tragic play based on the legend, which was adapted into a libretto by music publisher Tito Ricordi, Jr.  Ricordi initially wanted Puccini (1858-1924) to create the score, but when he refused Ricordi turned to Riccardo Zandonai (1883-1944), who had previously written the opera Conchita on a libretto also rejected by Puccini.

Francesca first premiered at the Met in 1916 with Frances Alda and Giovanni Martinelli.  It was performed through 1918, and then fell out of the repertory for 66 years.  The current production premiered in 1984 – and has not been seen at the Met since 1986.

The reason for Francesca’s protracted absence is puzzling, as it has a great deal to commend it, including a dramatic story, theatrical set-pieces and a score that, while not of the first rank, certainly delivers diverse pleasures.  It continues through March 22nd and you should see it, if at all possible.  (It will also be broadcast, eventually, on PBS.)

The story concerns Francesca, promised in marriage to Gianciotto Malatesta.  When the handsome Paolo Malatesta arrives, she mistakes him for her betrothed, and – in one of the most magical moments of the opera, beautifully played here – wordlessly fall in love over the gift of a rose.  The second act takes place during a battle between warring families, the Guelphs and the Ghibellines, and we see her actual husband, the crippled Gianciotto.  We also meet the third brother, Malatestino, who rather graphically makes his appearance after losing an eye in battle.

Of course, the forbidden love between Francesca and Paolo continues unabated.  The malign Malatestino, who delights in mischief, draws the Gianciotto’s attention to his wife’s true feelings, and the opera ends in tragedy.

The sets, by Ezio Frigerio, have all the beauty of a Pre-Raphaelite painting; indeed, it is one of the most beautiful productions I’ve seen in years.  As mentioned earlier, the First Act closing love scene is a thing of great beauty, and the Second Act battle scenes are spectacular in a way that can only be delivered by the Met. 

Zandonai’s score is something of a mixed bag; equal parts Wagnerian bombast and Pucciniesque Romanticism.  It has echoes of DeBussy, as well as Strauss, but no matter how derivative, it is tuneful and amply dramatizes the action.

As Francesca, Eva-Maria Westbroek is at times transcendentally lovely, and her clear voice and fine tone is sometimes compromised by imprecise diction.  As Paolo, the handsome lover, Marcello Giordani is somewhat out of his league, having neither the voice nor the looks for the role.  However, his acting is occasionally affecting, and he is particularly effective in his silent love scene at the end of Act One.  As the evil brothers – lame Gianciotto and one-eyed Malatestino – Mark Delavan and Robert Brubaker, respectively, were particularly fine.  The performance was conducted by Marco Armiliato, who, in his ill-fitting tails, seemed to have an unfortunate resemblance to the late Dudley Moore.

Francesca includes battle scenes, spectacular fire effects, love affairs, decapitation, adultery, murder and dungeons.  As Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz said, “that’s entertainment.”

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