Francesca da Rimini, Tragedia in quattro atti, premiered in 1914 in Turin
Music by Riccardo Zandonai (1883-1994)
Based on the play by Gabriele d'Annunzio, adapted by Tito Ricordi
1984 (Live) - James Levine - Metropolitan Opera Orchestra
Cello soloist - Jascha Silberstein
Production by Piero Faggione
Set design by Ezio Frigerio
Costume design by Franca Squarciapino
Metropolitan Opera Ballet, Choreographer Donald Mahler
Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Chorus Master David Stivender
Video direction by Brian Large
Francesca - Renata Scotto
Paolo il Bello (the handsome) - Plácido Domingo
Samaritana - Nicole Lorange
Ostasio - Richard Fredricks
Giovanni lo Sciancato (the lame, nicknamed Gianciotto) - Cornell Macneil
Malatestino dall'Occhio (the one-eyed) - William Lewis
Biancofiore - Natalia Rom
Garsenda - Gail Robinson
Altichiara - Gail Dubinbaum
Adonella - Claudia Catania
Smaradi, la schiava (the slave girl) - Isola Jones
Ser Toldo Berardengo - Anthony Laciura
Simonetto, il giullare (the minstrel) - Brian Schexnayder
Berlingerio, il torrigiano (the tower guard) - John darrenkamp
Un balestriere (an archer) - John Gilmore
Un prigionero (a prisoner) - John Bills
This is Zandonai's only claim to fame in spite of his long career. It premiered when the composer was 30 years old. He was a pupil of Mascagni, and wrote this opera in the Verismo / late Romantic musical language. He was also a friend of Arrigo Boito's, who introduced him to Giulio Ricordi, the head of the famous publishing house responsible for Verdi's publishing.
Gabriele d'Annunzio wrote this "epic of blood and lust" to great success, based on Dante's tragic love story. The libretto can be said to have been authored indirectly by d'Annunzio, since Tito Ricordi's role was mostly to trim it to a size compatible with an opera. The Ricordis thought that Zandonai's command of late Romantic orchestration was ideal to set this play to music, and this is how it got to see the light of day, since the Ricordis were powerful enough in the world of opera to push through whatever project they had in mind.
The opera was immediately successful, and was rapidly taken from Turin to London and New York, where it was given at the Met in 1916. It never came back to the Met stage, though, until this present production featuring Scotto and Domingo, under Levine who has loved this work since his teenage years.
Maestro Levine wanted to impact on this production Zandonai's colorful scoring - defined as "a heady mélange of Wagner, Strauss, and Debussy" - and incorporated in his orchestra especially for this performance, period instruments such as the lute and the viola pomposa, to conjure a medieval atmosphere.
The staging with massive period settings (13th century Rimini) includes a flowery courtyard, a citadel armed for battle, and richly furnished castle apartments.
This Deutsche Grammophon release is well packaged with complete liner notes including an essay and very detailed chapter-by-chapter synopsis in English, German, and French, although the chapter/track list doesn't include durations. The total running time is 150 minutes.
We get a region zero DVD with 4:3 picture format; PCM stereo, DD 5.1, and DTS 5.1 audio formats. Optional subtitles are included in original Italian, as well as English, German, French, Spanish, and Chinese. Extras only include a picture gallery and a DG catalogue.
First impressions (I've just watched the first act)
This is a weird one, folks, and it's the fault (or it is thanks to) the composer. Yes, it's definitely over-the-top. Sometimes Zandonai tries to be Wagner but he is no Wagner. Then he tries to be Puccini but he is no Puccini. He then tries to be Debussy but he is no Debussy. He goes back to trying to be Mascagni but he is no Mascagni. He even tried to be exotic Delibes' Thaďs but... you've guessed... he is no Delibes. So, major failure, right? Oh well, surprise, surprise... IT WORKS!
The score is all over the place. Sometimes bombastic, sometimes sweet. Sometimes raw, sometimes subdued.
So why does it work?
First, because it's a heck of a rollercoaster. It's FUN!!!!
Second, because these talented artists - Levine, Domingo, Scotto, Faggione, Frigerio - MAKE it work!
You get a conductor who loves this work (regardless of its musical merits or lack thereof) and shapes his orchestra into making it exciting and lively and deep. You get a veteran of the trade in Scotto who finds the exact right balance and in spite of her aging looks and failing high notes (this score is waaaaaay high in tessitura - Mr. Zandonai, making your singers yell these high notes out loud doesn't a beautiful vocal writing make!), she conveys all the passion of a teenager. You get Domingo who plays Il Bello - the handsome - and even this decidedly heterosexual reviewer - me - needs to confess that he does look dashing. You get a stage director who has the right feel for the work and makes the singers/actors movements on stage be very well calculated and appropriate. You get a set designer who imprints onto the work the right lavish sets (this opera would definitely fall flat on its behind in some sort of modern minimalistic staging - it *needs* the OTT staging).
In short, you get a TALENTED team of artists who say to each other: this is no masterpiece, but let's MAKE of it a masterpiece.
And they do!
Better proof, Domingo's and Scotto's SILENT scene at the end of Act I when NOBODY is singing draws enthusiastic applause from the audience, which we usually only see after the delivery of some blockbuster aria.
Oh boy! These artists are good! Very good! This is opera, folks!
There's still a long way to go but I can't see how I'd ever change my mind from "highly recommended" on this one. But we'll see. Back to watching it.
LOL, I forgot to mention that this libretto is very good. There are some fabulous moments, like when Paolo passionately asks Francesca how he should die for her. One expects that she would say, oh, no, my beloved, don't die etc. Well, she proceeds to telling him in all letters how he should die. Beware of what you ask for, Paolo!
Act II is infamously known for general yelling and misguidedly high tessitura, and yes, it's just like this. It continues to be enormous fun, though. There are some rather impressively staged battle scenes, and there is good acting especially from William Lewis.
Act III is a letdown. It has the ubiquitous, boring ballet, and then a scene between Paolo and Francesca that is clearly overlong (takes two thirds of the act), in spite of being well sung and acted by Plácido and Renata. The pace slows down and the orchestration becomes more conventional (Romantic melodious style). They finally kiss, which then (fortunately) ends this slow act.
Act IV gets the drama going again, and starts with an interesting scene in which Malatestino harasses his sister-in-law Francesca. During their tense conversation when he first tries to seduce her (nice brother to her husband, Gianciotto) then rightly accuses her of adultery with his other brother (Paolo), a prisoner keeps howling in the background, which annoys Francesca. OK, Malatestino goes and beheads the prisoner. Nice way to shut him up, it works, he definitely stops howling, LOL. Malatestino comes back with the prisoner's bloody head (someone must have seen Salome), probably thinking that this would earn him Francesca's favor but unfortunately for him (not to forget, unfortunately for the prisoner) it doesn't work because by then Gianciotto had joined his wife. Spiteful Malatestino then takes revenge by revealing to his older brother what is going on between Junior and his wife. Pure Verismo drama! Gianciotto is not happy. He looks positively terrifying. Ominous orchestration is the background to the entire scene. I'm making fun of it but this is actually the best scene so far. It is very dramatically effective and the singers do a wonderful job, and act well too.
We go next to the last scene, in Francesca's room, when Gianciotto surprises the two lovers together and kills his wife and his brother. Oh well, we saw this coming. A good Verismo opera needs some good solid killings. The scene starts with a sense of foreboding when the chamber maids talk about the beheading of the prisoner. Francesca is asleep. Everything is still peaceful but we know that things will deteriorate fast. She wakes up, all weepy and anxious. I guess Boito being Zandonai's friend and the team behind this opera's gestation being the same one that convinced Verdi to come out of retirement, we can see some Othello influences here in the choice of this kind of source material and the musical treatment given to it. It does remind me strongly of Desdemona's scene before she gets killed - the difference being that Desdemona was innocent while Francesca is not.
Renata Scotto is pretty good in this scene. Again, it's all very effective, if a little bombastic (and the problem with the high tessitura persists).
Anyway, this is kind of a historical recording, with a Plácido Domingo in his prime and Renata Scotto showing that even older she can still deliver the goods, coupled with great conducting and pretty intense and convincing staging.
The opera itself has enough ups and downs to not be called a masterpiece.
But this performance certainly makes the best out of it.