FRANCESCA DA RIMINI
Renata Scotto (Francesca), Nicole Lorange (Samaritana), Natalia Rom (Biancofiore), Gail Robinson (Garsenda), Isola Jones (Smaragdi), Gail Dubinbaum (Altichiara), Claudia Catania (Adonella), Placído Domingo (Paolo), William Lewis (Malatestino), Cornell Macneil (Gianciotto), Richard Fredricks (Ostasio), Anthony Laciura (Ser Toldo Berardengo), Brian Schexnayder (Simonetto), John Darrencamp (Berlingerio)
Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Chorus and Ballet c. James Levine p. Piero Faggioni d. Ezio Frigerio & Franca Squarciapino video director Brian Large
DG 00440 073 4313 (150 minutes)
Poor Zandonai! To be so publicly anointed by doyenne of Italian publishers, Tito Ricordi, as Puccini’s successor, only to climax prematurely, at the age of thirty, with Francesca da Rimini, and never recapture his inspiration in later works, has led to his wholesale dismissal by the critical fraternity, who, in any case tend to think of this whole era of Italian opera as unworthy of serious consideration. This is unjust, his music has an individual flavour, if perhaps some of the material is under par: crucially, by no stretch of the imagination is he a compelling melodist. But in a performance as committed as this one, Francesca is revealed to have its own very special juices: and is more imaginatively and fluently composed than most works by his Italian contemporaries, Puccini, of course, excepted. This is the sort of spectacle the Met does best: hyper-detailed sets and costumes of extreme opulence by husband and wife team Ezio Frigerio and Franca Squarciapino, compellingly evoking 13th century Rimini, contrasting poetry and squeamish violence in an effective visual marriage of Burne Jones and Mad Max. This is complemented by detailed direction from Piero Faggioni, helped by a starry cast.
And the piece does need help: it is the only opera based on a D’Annunzio play that comes close to working, thanks to Tito Ricordi’s (here acting as librettist for his protégé) ruthless pollarding of reams of perfumed verbiage: even so, the minimal narrative does at times lose direction, and, for viewers, the doubly pared-back surtitles become, on occasion, surreal. Thus, it is no small measure of Zandonai’s skill that he shapes the big scenes into compelling musical paragraphs. Francesca, forced into a politically expedient marriage with Gianciotto, lame and brutish Lord of Rimini, is tricked into thinking that she will marry his younger and handsome brother Paolo, sent as emissary. Their initial encounter, and mutual infatuation concludes the first act with the opera’s most memorable scene, a hypnotically ravishing adagio where the lovers’ voices remain silent. The battle scene, where Francesca courts death by wandering on the battlements and Paolo, similarly declines to wear his helmet, is vulgarly effective and even if Zandonai achieves more volume than voltage, it is undeniably exciting, capped by a visual coup: a catapult of Greek fire that ignites at curtain fall.
James Levine gives a febrile, nuanced account of this heady brew of Italianate Wagner, Strauss and Debussy and the Met orchestra relishes the virtuoso demands of the scintillating score, the filigree detail of the orchestration (which some Italian commentators dubbed Stile Liberty, finding an aural equivalent to the term used in Italy for art nouveau design, at that time synonymous with the design brand from the London store) that even evokes pseudo-medievalism by including an onstage lute, and viola pomposa – here the eloquent Jascha Silverstein on ‘cello.
By 1984, Renata Scotto’s vocal condition could be perilous and harsh on top, but this role contains few forays into the upper reaches, and there are only a handful of acidulous top notes, though initially her tone is not the freshest. It is a measure of her personality that her highly stylized, almost choreographed acting style is so compelling, and not the slightest bit risible. Indeed, she is riveting in the last two acts: her phrasing, wealth of dynamic contrast, vocal colour and verbal acuity add up to a veritable operatic masterclass. Her curtain calls are telling: she seems unable, or unwilling to relinquish character. Plácido Domingo matches her well; he is in particularly honeyed voice and looks slim, young and handsome: the extended love duets are highly convincing. The veteran Cornell MacNeil, here in his sixties, though thinner in vocal allure than in his prime, is a thoroughly convincing thug, offering stentorian top notes – subtlety is not needed in this role. William Lewis cuts a sinister figure as the one-eyed, youngest brother, Malatestino, though a tenor, his top register is frayed and perilous and not as resounding as MacNeil’s, neither is he the psychotic teenager described in the libretto. Stylish cameos by Natalia Rom as Francesca’s sister Samaritana, and Isola Jones as Francesca’s enigmatic companion, Smaragdi, complete a compelling cast. Video direction is mostly strong and clear, though there are some frustrating moments when the camera cuts away from Scotto in fullest flow to clock an irrelevant reaction shot. Strongly recommended, if such decadent fare is your gout.
© Julian Grant 2008
Francesca da Rimini, Zandonai
Daniela Dessì (Francesca), Giacinta Nicotra (Samaritana), Rosella Bevacqua (Garsenda), Roberta Canzian (Biancofiore), Sabrina Modena (Adonella), Francesca Rinaldi (Altichiara), Angela Masi (Smaragdi), Fabio Armiliato (Paolo), L'udovít Ludha (Malatestino), Alberto Mastromarino (Gianciotto), Giuseppe Altomare (Ostasio), Francesco Zingariello (Ser Toldo Berardengo), Domenico Colaianni (Il giullare), Alessandro Pucci (Il balestriere)
Coro Lirico Marchigiano “V.Bellini”, Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana c. Maurizio Barbacinip&d. Massimo Gasparon video director Michelangelo Rossi
r. live Sferisterio Opera Festival, Macerata 2004
Arthaus Musik 101 363 (137 minutes)
The Sferisterio open-air theatre in Macerata is reputed to have excellent acoustics, in which case the sound-manipulation on this DVD is a mystery. Whatever sound format is chosen, everything registers as mezzo-forte. The filigree of Zandonai’s virtuoso orchestration is revealed in great detail, but balance between voices and orchestra sounds synthetic. Offstage effects are perilous: the tortured slave screaming in the last act is almost inaudible, as is the solo ‘cello that has the main melodic line in the rapt voiceless adagio which concludes the first act, yet the accompanying lute and high woodwind are piercing. A shame, as Maurizio Barbacini gives a pacy account of the score, and the orchestra copes well, for the most part, with the virtuoso score. Massimo Gasparon, who is responsible for production, design and lighting in this 2004 performance ignores the crepuscular, decadent sound-world of this opera, and opts for a single bisected dome, which does service for both battle scene and lovers’ boudoir, attractive, if garish, byzantine costumes and bright clinical lighting; as inappropriate here as it would be for Tristan und Isolde. The stonework of the Sferistico gives a monumental Roman aspect – most inappropriate. The singers look stranded; more concerned with getting on and off set than acting their parts. Much of the blocking looks improvised; a peculiar nadir is Fabio Armiliato climbing onto the stone bed (or is it a tomb?) not once but twice and having to shuffle on his knees to get close to his innamorata.
A shame, as the lovers have the vocal guns to do justice to the score’s demands (as far as the manipulated sound enables you to tell) – which makes a wrenching downward transposition in the stentorian final duet inexplicable. Dessì has vocal consistency throughout all ranges, and Armiliato’s clear, lightish tenor is sensitive with a wide array of dynamics, though neither seem to relish D’Annunzio’s poetic text. These guilty lovers are in fact real life partners, which makes their lack of chemistry and physical clumsiness with each other surprising. Dessì seems particularly uninvolved. Alberto Mastromarino as the brutish lame Gianciotto is wasted in this thuggish role, with too honeyed a voice and not enough command, and the virulent adolescent Malatestino, surely a gift to a singing actor, is just dull.
It is instructive to turn to the 1984 Met version to see this opera catch fire. Late Renata Scotto cannot command anything like the vocal security of Dessì, yet she surpasses her as an actress. The tactile chemistry she shares with Placído Domingo is compelling, as is Cornell MacNeil, terrifying as the lame brother. The production is sensitive to this elusive, haunting opera. Here, deprived of nuance, verbal perception and atmosphere, it is delivered into the hands of its many detractors: a protracted, static bore.
© Julian Grant 2009