Reviewed by James Karas
Riccardo Zandonai (1883-1944) composed about a dozen operas and had a few hits but I doubt that there are too many opera fans who would name him as their favourite composer or be able to name more than a couple of his operas.
Francesca da Rimini is his almost sole survivor and is produced occasionally in Europe and rarely in North America. If we go by New York’s Metropolitan Opera, it is not doing well. It premiered at the Met in 1916, two years after its opening in Italy, and was shelved until 1984. It went back on the shelf until 2013 when the Met took the 1984 production out of its mothballs and gave it a major revival. It was shown Live from the Met around the world and many of us were able to see it. If the Met sticks to its schedule of 2 productions of Francesca per century, most of us may be in mothballs by the time the next viewing comes around.
Covid-19 and the shutdown of most cultural activities has resulted in the Met streaming dozens of operas for us to watch on television free of charge. The 1984 production was one of the works that it streamed.
The Met did not skimp on anything. The production had an all-star cast with James Levine conducting the Met Opera Orchestra. Piero Faggioni directed with set designer Ezio Frigerio, and costume designer Franca Squarciapino all intent on giving us a grand and opulent production intended, as they say, to knock your socks off. The 2013 production was a revival of this one.
The production has at least three outstanding singers. Soprano Renata Scotto is the hapless Francesca who for reasons of state is tricked by her brother Ostasio (Richard Fredricks) into marrying the hideous Giovanni (Cornell MacNeil). His brother, the handsome Paolo (Placido Domingo), stands in as the bridegroom and the result is simple: Francesca loves Paolo but is married to Giovanni. And Malatestino (William Lewis) just-as-detestable third brother falls in love with Francesca and you can just imagine the rest.
The vocal and orchestral power carry the opera and bring out all its virtues. Scotto is at her best showing passion and superb singing that ranges from the splendidly romantic to the tragically dramatic. Domingo is a compelling Paolo who is in turn heroic and tragic. His voice soars with passion. The two share several duets that are simply showstoppers.
On the side of the bad guys, we have Francesca’s brother Ostasio who makes a brief but effective appearance with his co-plotter Sir Toldo (Anthony Laciura) and they disappear. Baritone Cornel MacNeil sings a frightful and nasty Giovanni assisted most ably in evil by his younger brother aptly named Malatestino.
Francesca takes place in the courtyard of a palace in Ravenna where our heroine and her friends wait for the arrival of the groom-to-be. It is a set of magnificence even if the 1984 lighting does not do it justice.
We then go to the Malatesta castle in Rimini where a battle is raging. Battlements, catapults, crossbows, and fires combine to make a scene worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster. Frigerio’s sets are outstanding throughout and fitting for the passionate drama and melodrama.
Director Faggioni gives what now would be considered a “traditional” interpretation but I think he does an outstanding job that brings out the best in the opera.
The story of Francesca da Rimini originates in Dante’s Inferno where it briefly told in connection with people who are punished for lustful behaviour. Poet Gabriele D’Annunzio wrote a play based on it and music publisher Tito Ricordi adopted it into a libretto.
Zandonai’s music carries the libretto and the singing and Faggioni’s staging go a long way to showing the opera at its best. But it still has its lacunae. At two and a half hours it seemed too long for the classic love triangle that culminates in a scene of bliss between the lovers who quickly meet their tragic end.
Francesca da Rimini by Riccardo Zandonai was streamed by the Metropolitan Opera on August 18 and 19, 2020. For more information go to: www.metopera.org