Hellish for some, Zandonai’s “Francesca” finds redemption at the Met
Riccardo Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini, like so many second-tier verismo operas, is rarely mounted in the United States, demanding three powerfully effective Italianate singers and a conductor unashamed of the score’s idiomatic lushness and unfazed by its stretches of flimsy atmospheric wanderings. Duets, rather than big aria moments, define each of its five scenes while elusive, perfumed melodic fragments waft the listener into each intermission.
Tito Ricordi’s libretto for Zandonai’s 1914 setting is based on a 1901 play by Gabriele d’Annunzio, written as a vehicle for the playwright’s mistress, the great actress Eleonora Duse. The tragic story of the adulterous lovers Paolo and Francesca is drawn directly from Dante’s Divine Comedy, but colored by Boccaccio’s later gloss that the lovers had been set up and Francesca tricked into marrying Paolo’s deformed and brutish brother Gianciotto. References to other doomed couples abound: in the opening scene a court jester presents the story of Tristan and Iseult and it is the reading of Lancelot and Guinevere’s illicit love tale that brings Paolo and Francesca’s lips together, in Zandonai’s sweeping and deliciously lingering climax.
After giving the work’s U.S. premiere in 1916 with Frances Alda and Giovanni Martinelli, the Metropolitan Opera shelved Francesca until 1984, when it was revived for Renata Scotto, a bit past her peak, but a supreme exponent of verismo’s vocal acting. An ardent Placido Domingo and a snarling Cornell MacNeil served James Levine’s enthusiasm and brought the work to vivid life.
After a revival in 1986, Francesca da Rimini lay in the Met’s warehouse until Monday night, when conductor Marco Armiliato proved a worthy champion, pacing the intensely romantic story urgently and highlighting Zandonai’s effective orchestral writing, while affording the singers ample room to maneuver.
Piero Faggioni’s production places the 13th century Ravenna setting within a gauzy pre-Raphaelite visual world contemporary with d’Annunzio and Zandonai. In this richly textured world, love causes physical suffering, gowns are wispy, blonde hair is loosely flowing and attractive armor enhances manhood.
Gil Wechsler lit Ezio Frigerio’s black and gold Art Nouveau-inspired sets effectively and the set even seems to close in as the story entraps the lovers. Stunning costumes by Franca Squarciapino, especially Paolo and Francesca’s first act pastels, and imaginative use of torches, fire and smoke perfectly evoke the medieval dreamworld and highlight the alternation of richly glowing feminine sensibility with the brutal, darkly violent world of men.
Best known to U.S. audiences as Sieglinde in the Met’s Walküre, Eva-Maria Westbroek possesses the acting skills, variety of attack, and vocal color for Italian repertoire, if falling somewhat short on idiomatic verismo bite. The Dutch soprano’s impeccable musicianship and artistic generosity highlight her glowing, rangy voice, while her tall and graceful bearing perfectly suit the production’s dreamy, Arthurian-revival aesthetic. Without a word Westbroek transformed herself physically from Act One’s eager, impetuous maiden to Act Two’s deadened wife all the while lavishing ample vocalism on a well-paced performance.
Three years ago Marcello Giordani might have filled the romantic role of Paolo more confidently, but his voice has stiffened to the point where color and richness are largely gone, and his squeezed tone rides high on the pitch. Authoritative language and artistic sincerity got him through the night, but the romantic pairing of Westbroek and Giordani was devoid of spark.
The superb Mark Delavan dug into the role of Paolo’s brother Gianciotto with evil relish, from his first lumbering, brutish entrance, while conveying nobility and sympathy with darkly polished tones that filled the house. Robert Brubaker’s bright, clear and powerful tenor made one wish the role of the third brother, the evil Malatestino, was even larger; Act Four’s confrontation scene, in which Malatestino promises Gianciotto proof of Francesca’s fidelity, found Delavan and Brubaker pelting each other with vocally thrilling insults.
Along with excellent work from the women of the Met chorus, and several onstage musicians, supporting roles were cast to strength. Soprano Dina Kuznetsova brought dark and well-projected sound to the role of Francesca’s sister, and Philip Horst impressed with handsome and full sound as their brother Ostasio. Ginger Costa-Jackson filled out Smaragdi’s low-lying lines smartly, while debut artists Caitlyn Lynch as Biancofiore and Dísella Làrusdóttir as Garsenda showed promise.
Francesca da Rimini runs through March 22. metoperafamily.org/metopera
An active concert soloist, Judith Malafronte is on the music faculty at Yale University. Her writings have appeared in several publications including Opera News and Early Music America.