Francesca da Rimini (Metropolitan Opera)

9d2e1c5d5488f5dfc0cad7f7598d9496Adapted from the prominent Italian writer Gabriele d’Annunzio’s 1901 tragedy play of the same name (itself based on a episode in Dante’s ‘Inferno’; the first part of Dante Alighieri’s 14th-century epic poem The Divine Comedy), Riccardo Zandonai’s lyrical and luxurious 1914 opera contains arguably some of the finest and most gorgeous music to be found in Twentieth Century Italian opera, and having last been seen at the Metropolitan Opera House in 1984 (with Renata Scotto and Placido Domingo in the central roles), this fine revival gives audiences a superb opporutnity to see this severely overlooked and rarely performed work.

Based on the life of the Thirteenth Century historical figure, Francesca da Rimini (1255–1285) daughter of Guido I da Polenta, Lord of Ravenna, (and historical contemporary of Dante), the opera follows the ill-fated struggles of the eponymous Francesca, who, tricked into an unhappy marriage with Gianciotto, the lame and malformed son of Malatesta da Verucchio, after a devious and well-though out scheme, falls instantly in love with his handsome younger brother, Paolo, with whom she develops an intense, passionate and secretive love affair, behind the backs of her ruthless husband and their sly, devious younger brother, Malatestino.

The problem with the the production is that it all just feels too stilted and distant, and with four-short acts, all around the half hour mark, broken up with three intermissions of the same length, the piece is constantly interrupted and never given a chance to really flow. Audiences are just beginning to immerse themselves in the piece when the magic is quickly dissolved with an intermission.

mediaWhilst there is no denying that Piero Faggioni’s production is visually stunning and engrossing, or that Ezio Frigerio’s towering, grandiose sets (which have sadly been locked away in storage containers near Newark Airport for almost three decades) are sublime and beautifully detailed (utilising the entire intermission for their construction), with a thirty-minute first act and a twenty-minute second act, I can’t help but feel that the production would benefit from allowing the two acts to flow, as the absorbing, lyrical power initially established is quickly diminished with the intrusion of a thirty minute break.

Though one could question the lack of originality and inspiration within the piece, and perhaps the need for a greater sense of depth, both in terms of characterisation and dramatic content, what is perhaps most impressive, is Zandonai’s extraordinary command of orchestration and his ability to effectively fuse and interweave an array of contrasting musical styles and genres, with hints of influential tones and homages to everyone from Wagner, Strauss, Verdi, Puccini and Debussy, to deliver a score of undeniable power and sheer lyrical and poetic beauty.

d7441360-512b-495a-a29d-373e35e6d4aeThe central eponymous role was picked specifically as a star vehicle for the Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, and though there is no denying that Westbroek is a powerful and charismatic performer, with a highly impressive soprano vocal to match, somehow the role just didn’t seem to lie comfortably within her repertoire. This is a complex and demanding role for a soprano, and requires a skilled performer with the ability to compliment the grand scale of the piece, which thankfully it has in Westbroek, but it all became slightly too dynamic and one dimensional, with power often overshadowing graceful intonation and slightly attenuating the lyrical and emotional quality that should be drawn from the piece.

Marcello Giordani also felt slightly hit and miss in the tenor role of Paolo, and though there were some truly fine moments with his strong, lyric tenor resonating with affecting beauty and clarity, and perfectly conveying the fluid, natural poetry of his native language, it did begin to sound slightly thin and strained towards the higher end of the scale, quickly being swept away in the powerful currents of the orchestra.

American bass-baritone Mark Delavan and American tenor Robert Brubaker were both very strong and impressive in their respective roles of the betrayed Gianciotto and the slimy, conniving Malatestino, with Delavan effectively contrasting his visceral power with an underlying air of anguish and emotion.

FRANCESCA-articleLargeConductor Marco Armiliato was on fine form a rendered a superb and beautifully refined performance of Zandonai’s sumptuous and complex score.

The next Live In HD broadcast will be on April 27, 2013 at 12:00 pm ET, with David McVicar’s lively new production of Handel’s Giulio Cesare, the opera that conquered London in Handel’s time. The world’s leading countertenor, David Daniels, sings the title role opposite Natalie Dessay as Cleopatra. Baroque specialist Harry Bicket conducts.

Running time: 3 hrs. 50 minutes (approx.)

For more information on the Met’s 2012/13 ‘Live In HD’ cinema series, please Click Here