The arranged marriage of Francesca, daughter of Guido Vecchio da Polenta, lord of Ravenna, to the physically deformed Gianciotto Malatesta took place around 1275. A love affair developed between Francesca and Gianciotto’s younger brother, Paolo (il bello), which resulted in their slaughter after being discovered by Gianciotto. In some versions of the retelling, Francesca is duped into agreeing to the marriage by thinking that she will marry Paolo, though this is not referred to in Canto V of Dante’s Inferno, possibly the most famous passage in the Divine Comedy, and the source for Modest Tchaikovsky’s libretto for Rachmaninov. These ill-fated lovers take second place only to Romeo and Juliet in the nineteenth century musical imagination. Significantly, none of the operas, most notably by Amboise Thomas, Eduard Napravnik (conductor at the Bolshoi for many years), Sergei Rachmaninov and Riccardo Zandonai, have survived in the repertoire (though the Zandonai piece, based on a vehicle for Italian actress Eleanora Duse, by Gabrielle d’Annunzio, has much going for it). Rather, it is in the concert hall that you are most likely to encounter the lovers, either in the Dante Symphony by Liszt (1853), where Paolo and Francesca inspire the lush central paragraph in the Inferno first movement, or the tone poem by Tchaikovsky (1878), one of his most overwrought and emotional works.
Rachmaninov and Opera
Rachmaninov, in common with fellow Russians Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov, is a victim of a sort of ‘iceberg effect’, in that a small proportion of their work is ubiquitous and overplayed, while many other excellent pieces languish. Rachmaninov’s operas are probably his least known works, though, in fact, his first opera Aleko (1893), an examination exercise for the Moscow Conservatory based on Pushkin’s poem The Gypsies, performed at the Bolshoi when the composer was just 20, launched his career, undoubtedly benefitting from the enthusiastic endorsement of Tchaikovsky. This opera, the closest in the Russian repertoire to the verismo school of shocking realism inaugurated by Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana (1890), was performed a great deal in its early years and took on a new lease of life when the celebrated bass, Fyodor Chaliapin, took it into his repertoire. In the 1897-8 season, Rachmaninov was engaged as a conductor by the enterprising industrialist Savva Mamontov, who had founded an independent opera company in 1885 and had secured the rights to some notable premieres, including Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko. Though initially inexperienced, Rachmaninov quickly became one of the most sought after conductors, championing productions of Carmen, Samson and Dalila and many of the Russian classics. This brought him into the orbit of the most notable Russian singers of the day, as the dedications to his songs attest. In the 1904-6 seasons, he was music director at the Bolshoi Theatre, conducting operas by Tchaikovsky, Borodin, Mussorgsky and the high profile premiere of Rimsky’s Pan Voyevoda. After the bloody massacre in front of the Winter Palace in 1905, he stayed on at the Bolshoi solely to see his new double-bill of operas, The Miserly Knight and Francesca da Rimini, launched, and then resigned, anxious not to be associated with a state institution in such unstable times. For the remainder of his Russian years, until he went into exile in 1917, he was thwarted in his attempts to write a full length opera; a project based on Flaubert’s Salaambo faltered, and a setting of Maeterlinck’s Monna Vanna was abandoned after he discovered the rights had been secured by another composer.
An Unhappy Collaboration
Peter Tchaikovsky had collaborated with his brother, Modest, on his last two operas, The Queen of Spades (1890) and Iolanta (1892). Modest, aware of the success of Rachmaninov’s Aleko, had attempted to interest Rachmaninov in a setting of the Undine legend. Even though this was abandoned, Modest was quick to respond to a new request from Rachmaninov, in 1898, for a libretto on a Shakespearean subject, possibly Richard II. Modest countered with a scenario outlining Francesca da Rimini based on Dante. At this point, Rachmaninov was in a profound depression, resulting from the disastrous premiere of his First Symphony in 1897, chaotically conducted by an inebriated Glazunov, which had been venomously attacked by the St.Petersburg critics, and was unable to write for almost two years thereafter. This extreme case of writer’s block and self-doubt were resolved only with medical help, from a Dr. Nikolai Dahl, who specialized in treatment by hypnosis. The effects were immediate. After consultations early in 1900, Rachmaninov spent June and July in Italy staying with Chaliapin, for whom he wrote a song, and composed the love scene for Paolo and Francesca at white heat, followed closely on his return to Russia by the Suite no. 2 for two pianos and the world famous Piano Concerto no. 2. Work on Francesca was not resumed until 1904, when Rachmaninov wrote to Modest Tchaikovsky, outlining various changes. Secretly, Rachmaninov confided to friends that he found the libretto far from satisfactory, citing a problem with the proportions of the work. He repeatedly badgered Modest for words for the souls of the damned in the prologue in Hell; and when these were unforthcoming, he made a virtue out of necessity by an evocative use of a wordless chorus. Similarly, when Modest came up with too few words for a revision of the love duet, Rachmaninov expanded the section with a fifty bar orchestral passage depicting the lovers’ fateful kiss, which is gradually overwhelmed by a resurgence of the ominous music depicting the torments of hell. Lanciotto’s appearance at the conclusion, slaughtering the lovers with a single sung line, concluded a scene that seems conceived more as a symphonic climax than a stage one.
Libretto and Structure
The opera is framed by a Prologue and Epilogue in hell, revealing Dante and his guide throughout the Inferno, the Shade of Virgil. We see the lovers fleetingly blown about in the winds that torment the lustful souls, allowing them no rest. Dante poses questions to the lovers who sing the famous lines ‘There is no greater pain than to remember in present grief, past happiness’, a phrase that is repeated by the chorus at the conclusion of the opera. The first scene is dominated by a histrionic monologue for Lanciotto, tailor-made for Chaliapin to perform (ironically, conflicting engagements led him to withdraw at the last moment, which had possible effects on the work’s success), in which the duping of Francesca before the marriage is explained as well as a brief scene between Francesca and her husband in which she confesses she does not love him. The second scene is the love scene, culminating in their slaughter and a transition to the hellish epilogue, which culminates furiously with a (silent) Dante, fainting in sympathy at the horror of Francesca’s tale. This structure has a precedent, which is significantly not an operatic one. Modest Tchaikovsky had been influenced by his brother’s symphonic poem which similarly surrounds the lovers with a vivid and extended portrayal of hell and the lustful winds. Rachmaninov’s opera can be regarded as an amplification of Peter Tchaikovsky’s scenario: a symphonic poem with obbligato voices.
Whatever the problems with Rachmaninov’s Francesca da Rimini, the music is not one of them. The prologue in hell places the music in D minor, a key that Rachmaninov used for his darkest most emotional utterances. The chromatic fugal writing is ingenious and graphically portrays the seething winds and groaning tortured souls. Virgil’s shade and Dante are introduced by a halting, stumbling theme, which the intervals expand and contract in a mechanical fashion, reminiscent of the limping motif that portrays the wizard Kashchey the Immortal in Rimsky-Korsakov’s eponymous opera (1902), which had caused a minor sensation as its composer, then seen as the doyen of conservatism, exploited a modernist vein, that was to influence Stravinsky and Prokofiev greatly. Both Kashchey and Francesca were accused of yielding to the influence of Wagner, whose Ring was first performed in St Petersburg in 1889 and had proved a revelation to certain Russian composers, notably Rimsky and Scriabin, who both managed to turn this overwhelming influence into something very personal which flavoured much of the music of Russia’s Silver Age. In Rachmaninov’s case, this accusation had more to do with the sombre orchestral palette, that to our ears now sounds much more in the tradition of Tchaikovsky’s late operas and symphonies. There is a rudimentary use of recurring motives in Francesca, including a particularly intriguing connection between a simple descending five-note figure associated with the lovers ( first heard fleetingly in the prologue and then dominating the love scene) and an ascending five note scale that depicts the violent and threatening Lanciotto. Whether this connection was conscious or not, it is a telling musical effect. The lover’s music, written some four years before the more sombre surrounding scenes, is direct, sunny and uncomplicated in expression, perhaps reflecting the exhilaration of Rachmaninov’s recently rediscovered creativity. If this lovers scene is compared to the sublime central love theme from Tchaikovsky’s symphonic poem, it has none of the emotional anguish or sense of trapped fate of the earlier work, which is perhaps surprising for such a melancholic composer. And if one remembers that Francesca was written in the same period of Rachmaninovs ripely melodic Piano Concerto no. 2 and his Symphony no. 2, the opera lacks the melodic abundance of those works: the voice writing is only occasionally melodic and it is the orchestra that bears the brunt of the argument, which would account for those initial critical reactions that accuse Rachmaninov of imitating Wagner.
It is frustrating that Francesca is Rachmaninov’s last (completed) word when it comes to opera, as the limitations of the too pared down scenario preclude him from breathing psychological life into the characters; doubly frustrating when he is so evidently alive to the contrasts of mood and pace that show the instincts of a real musical dramatist.
Julian Grant 2004
This was a programme note for Opera North’s season of one-act operas Eight Little Greats