Oren, Daniel


DiableGiacomo Meyerbeer - Robert Le Diable

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden - 2012 | Daniel Oren, Laurent Pelly, Bryan Hymel, John Relyea, Jean-François Borras, Marina Poplavskaya, Patrizia Ciofi, Nicolas Courjal, Jihoon Kim, Pablo Bemsch, David Butt Philip, Ashley Riches, Dušica Bijelić | Opus Arte - Blu-ray

The folly and the controversy surrounding the Royal Opera House’s production of Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable have been extensively reported elsewhere, from the cast changes and departures through to its critical mauling in the press. While I’ve no doubt that a full evening of a misconceived five-act Meyerbeer opera could well have been a painful experience live at the Royal Opera House, a filmed recording of the production is however another thing entirely. That’s not to say that some of the problems with the production are any less evident, but there are compensating factors that one can perhaps better appreciate from the comfort of one’s own living room.

Even the undoubted weaknesses in the production can be offset to a large degree in this case just by the rare opportunity to see one of the greatest works of 19th century opera performed on the stage. Meyerbeer was one of the most important and composers of his time, an influence on both Verdi and Wagner, but his extravagant style and grandeur hasn’t remained fashionable, and even his greatest works - huge successes in their day - have fallen from the popular repertoire. Such is the case with Robert le Diable, a work which drew wide acclaim from fellow composers, critics and achieved wide popular international success following its premiere in 1831. The work was last performed at Covent Garden however in 1890, and it hasn’t been performed much anywhere in the world over the last century.

The fundamental difficulty with putting on a staging a work of 19th century Grand Opera does indeed have to do with it being at odds with popular tastes and fashions. It’s not so much a reflection on the quality of the work as the fact that modern audience has very different expectations from opera, and the old-style can be hard to swallow for a modernist, post-modernist, post-post-modernist audience. It’s like expecting a reader of Harlan Coben thrillers to adapt to reading Walter Scott, or for readers of Ian McEwan to engage with the themes of Victor Hugo. The challenge that faced director Laurent Pelly then is not an enviable one. He may not entirely have succeeded, but although his production for the Royal Opera House was heavily criticised in a way Pelly does capture the spirit of Meyerbeer to some extent. Perhaps it’s more of a case that audiences still aren’t ready for Meyerbeer.

Which is understandable, but a pity nonetheless. If nothing else Robert le Diable is an opera experience like no other. Musically and in terms of plotting it’s not the most sophisticated, but Meyerbeer packs the five acts of the opera so full of melodies and dramatic development, underlining it with grand choral refrains, lyrical expression, comic interplay and over-the-top gothic imagery with some ballet sequences thrown in for good measure, that it’s never anything less than pure value-for-money entertainment. Pelly’s production, unfairly criticised I feel, attempts to put all the colour and the darkness of the work up there on the stage in the sets and costumes, and he does so rather well. It’s faithful to the spirit of the work, playing it straight where it ought to be, exaggerating in other places, but never stooping to making fun of the melodramatic developments and wild declarations.

Aiming for the middle ground between period fidelity and modernism, there’s a “cardboard cutout” feel to the scenery then that is reminiscent in places of David Hockney’s designs for the Glyndebourne production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. It’s like an ancient black and white engraving that has been garishly hand-coloured, or even a medieval tapestry that might lack realistic detail and proportion, but nonetheless has the power to evoke the history and the values of another period far from our own. Sometimes this works exceptionally well (Act III’s vision of Hell on a mountain pass like something out of an Hieronymus Bosch painting), at other times the imagery feels a little forced (the ultimate battle between the good of Alice and the evil of Bertram in Act V), and sometimes it’s just a little too kitsch and reminiscent of ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail‘ to take seriously (the colour of the medieval tournament in Act II).

In most cases however, even those mentioned above, these are valid responses to the nature and tone of the material itself. Stravinsky and Meyerbeer may have little in common (Gounod’s Faust might be a better model to consider), but Robert le Diable does indeed relate an exaggerated morality tale of the battle between good and evil similar to the one in The Rake’s Progress. Here, Robert of Normandy is rumoured to be the son of beautiful princess who married a demon from Hell. Robert however has the choice to follow a path of righteousness, and demonstrates his leniency by sparing the life of the minstrel Rimbaut who relates the story of Robert the Devil to assembled knights at an inn in Palermo. He could choose also to win the hand of Isabelle in the traditional way through a tournament, but despite the warnings of his late mother and his foster sister Alice, is laid astray by the machinations of his companion Bertrand, the real devil of the work. If he steals a magic branch from the tomb of Saint Rosalie, he can win Isabelle by other means.

Barring some questionable choices - I’m still in two minds about the choreography of the zombie sisters of St Rosalie during the opera’s most famous/notorious Dance of the Nuns ballet - Pelly’s staging is sympathetic to the shifts of tone in the work itself and gets fully behind it, never attempting to make it into something else entirely with conceptual cleverness. Daniel Oren too shows great feeling for the work, its rhythms and variations, and - regardless of what you think of the merits or otherwise of Meyerbeer’s score - it’s simply a delight to see this type of work being put through its paces. There is however one other problem associated with putting on a Meyerbeer opera that the best efforts of the conductor, director and the Royal Opera House seem powerless to influence. It seems like we really don’t have the singers for this type of work any longer.

It’s understandable that singers who would be suited to or capable of singing Meyerbeer are obviously more focussed on the greater career opportunities afforded by singing Wagner or bel canto. Even good Verdi singers are thin on the ground nowadays and the demands of Meyerbeer are often greater. Singing the title role, Bryan Hymel proves that he is up there and his performance is not only commendable, it’s almost heroic. His voice might not be to everyone’s taste, and it does start to grate and go a little bit wayward as the opera progresses through the final acts, but the effort is considerable. No less demanding is the role of Bertram and John Relyea handles it superbly and with great character. Despite her commitment, Marina Poplavskaya however is terribly miscast here, as is Patrizia Ciofi, who really doesn’t have a large enough voice for this style of work, her singing sounding like a whimper that is lost in the orchestration and big choruses.

It’s this aspect of the production that is the most problematic. While there are advantages to watching Robert le Diable on the screen that allow one to better to appreciate the full Meyerbeer experience that Oren and Pelly recreate, it only emphasises the unsuitability of some of the singing. There’s no doubting the commitment of the performances however, and for all its flaws this is a sincere and a valiant effort to stage one of the great opera masterworks of yesteryear. The recording of the work and its presentation on the Opus Arte Blu-ray (which comes in a die-cut slipcase) is of course of the highest quality in both image and sound. The extra features however are slim, with only a Cast Gallery and a five-minute presentation on the legacy of the work, which does nonetheless give you an idea of the challenges of putting on this work. There’s an essay and a full synopsis in the enclosed booklet. The disc is BD50, Full-HD, Region-free, with subtitles in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.

GiocondaAmilcare Ponchielli - La Gioconda

Opéra National de Paris, 2013 | Daniel Oren, Pier Luigi Pizzi, Violeta Urmana, Luciana D’Intino, Orlin Anastassov, María José Montiel, Marcelo Álvarez, Claudio Sgura | Viva l’Opéra Cinema Live in HD, 13 May 2013

Ponchielli’s La Gioconda is a work that seems ideal for the French lyric stage, but although written in 1876, it has never been performed before at the Paris Opera. Watching it via cinema broadcast from the Opéra National de Paris in its first ever production there, a few reasons come to mind why this work of undoubted quality hasn’t been performed more often. Firstly, it probably falls into the same category as Meyerbeer’s operas, works that are a bit old-fashioned and overly ornate, their melodramatic content too exaggerated with Grand Operatic mannerisms for the tastes of a modern audience. Ponchielli was a contemporary of Verdi, but perhaps more significantly, Puccini was one of his pupils and the verismo style of the next generation of Italian composers undoubtedly played a large part in consigning many of the absurdities of the old style to the past.

The other reason La Gioconda perhaps hasn’t been performed more often is probably for much the same reason that the bel canto repertoire fell into neglect for almost a century - it really takes exceptional singers of personality and stature to really bring its qualities to life. It’s no surprise that the last time the work enjoyed popularity was when it was performed by Maria Callas and by Renata Tebaldi in the 1950s, but it’s rarely been heard since then. I wouldn’t say that Violeta Urmana is in the category of the world’s greatest sopranos, even by contemporary standards, but she certainly attacked the role with passion and distinction here in the Paris Opera’s production. What the Paris La Gioconda revealed however is that the work doesn’t just rely on the quality of the soprano singing the title role, but that there are five other difficult and challenging roles that it is essential to get right. Here, the Paris production was less convincing.

The set design for the opera’s Venetian locations at least looked terrific. Pier Luigi Pizzi creates the kind of typical big, bold design in primary colours that works so well at the Bastille, and works particularly well for this work. The action in the first two acts takes place on a piazza in Venice, and that’s recreated here well in Pizzi’s neo-classical style with canals and gondolas that seem to float naturally along them. A good sense of space is also created with bridges that serve to bring the choruses and the principals onto the scene. It’s all rendered in black and red, with a bright background that sets it in silhouette against a blazing sunset over the lagoon. The latter two acts simplify the design to a series of steps that allow space for the work’s most famous centrepiece, the Dance of Hours ballet, while also creating the necessary space for the focus to remain on the dramatic developments of the denouement. The set looks good and it functions well with the requirements of the drama.

The acting direction however is simply dreadful. Rarely do the singers interact with one another, but rather they pace up and down the stage in an old-fashioned style, directing their performance out to the audience. Once again, Marcelo Álvarez is the worst culprit. He’s a fine singer, but he has no sense of character and plays every role in exactly the same declamatory way, striking a pose, one arm stretched out, hand clasped in a fist and then swung into his chest, his delivery pitched at the back of the gallery with big gestures so that the audience can see the sincerity of his emotions. It looks even more ridiculous in close-up in a filmed performance. La Gioconda’s ripe melodrama, it has to be said however, does call out for this kind of performance from Enzo, and Álvarez has clearly been encouraged to play it to the hilt.

The other male roles could use this kind of energy and conviction, but it wasn’t much in evidence in Claudio Sgura’s Barnaba or Orlin Anastassov’s Alvise. Barnaba is an out-and-out villain, the scheming jealous mastermind who manipulates all of the characters, but is unable nonetheless to achieve the one thing he wants - making La Gioconda love him. It’s not particularly strong characterisation - Arrigo Boito’s libretto isn’t as refined here as it is for Verdi’s later works (although some of that may be to do with Victor Hugo’s source since Barnaba is no Iago) - but Sgura isn’t strong enough for the vocal demands that might make him more convincing. Even if his actions are equally villainous, Alvise is perhaps a little more nuanced in character, but it would require a singer with more acting ability than Orlin Anastassov to bring it out.

These are extremely difficult roles to sing however, almost as challenging in their range and expression as the writing for the character of La Gioconda, and what the work really needs then to really achieve its impact is six strong singers. The female singers thankfully fared rather better than the male roles. Violeta Urmana’s top notes aren’t particularly beautiful and getting up there is not a smooth process, but her interpretation has all the passion and strength of character required here and she copes exceptionally well with a very challenging role. Luciana D’Intino also sings Laura well, and the two ladies stand-off in Act II over who loves Enzo more was, as it ought to be, one of the highlights of the evening.

Laura: I challenge your heart, o rival! Gioconda: You blaspheme! Laura: You lie! I love him as the light of Creation. Like the air that enlivens the breath. Like the heavenly and blessed dream from which came my first sigh. Gioconda: I love him as the lion loves blood and the whirlwind its flight. And lightning its peaks, and halcyons the whirlpools and the eagle the sun!.

This is a prime example of the kind of ripe and floridly over-written lines that the singers are expected to deliver in La Gioconda, so full credit to Violeta Urmana for being able to sing “I love him as the lion loves blood” and being able to convincingly look as if she could eat her rival alive as well. Urmana’s scenes with her blind mother La Ciega are also excellent throughout on account of another strong performance from María José Montiel.

La Gioconda might be a work of a bygone age and the Paris Opera might not have made a totally convincing case that it can be staged well, but there are a couple of reasons why Ponchielli’s work has the ability to endure. One is the beautiful and famous Dance of Hours ballet sequence, which was exceptionally well-choreographed here and impressively performed, even if it wasn’t particularly in context with the rest of the work. With gold-coloured topless male and female lead dancers, it looked more like something from the Crazy Horse on the other side of town.

The other reason is the final fourth Act, which fully lives up to the contrived melodrama of the previous scenes. La Gioconda is a surprisingly dark work - and it’s in this you can see the impact the Ponchielli would have on the next generation of Italian verismo composers - with what little romance there is in it is tainted by jealousy, bitterness and hatred with one of the bleakest and unforgiving endings in an opera prior to Puccini’s Tosca. If the singing couldn’t always reach those heights, the full power of the work’s qualities were at least brought out in a terrific performance by the Paris Orchestra conducted with true dramatic energy by Daniel Oren.

ToscaGiacomo Puccini - Tosca

Arena di Verona, 2006 | Daniel Oren, Hugo de Ana, Fiorenza Cedolins, Marcelo Álvarez, Ruggero Raimondi, Marco Spotti, Fabio Previati, Enrico Facini, Angelo Nardinocchi, Ottavia Dorrucci | Arthaus

This budget release of Tosca by Arthaus (available for around £6 from online retailers) is an accessible and affordable introduction for anyone interested in discovering just how amazing opera can look and sound on Blu-ray. In the early days of DVD, Arthaus released a couple of ‘DVD Samplers’ that highlighted the latest releases in their catalogue with a selection of trailers, key arias or scenes from their opera, ballet and music documentary titles. This gave a flavour of how certain opera productions were staged, and whether they would be to your taste or not. Arthaus have however come up with a much better idea to introduce new audiences to their Blu-ray catalogue, and that is to include an entire opera along with all the samples, so that newcomers can get a sense of the whole dramatic and musical power of a complete production.

The choices so far have been good ones. The first release, Verdi’s La Traviata, with a stellar cast including Angela Gheorghiu, Ramón Vargas and Thomas Hampson and a sumptuous set at the Scala in Milan, could hardly be a better advertisement for opera on Blu-ray or a better introduction for the newcomer. La Traviata is full of magnificent and familiar melodies, demonstrates virtuoso singing and has a strong dramatically involving and emotionally engaging storyline that moves rapidly along. If that particular production was a little traditional and unimaginative, it is at least a safe option that cannot fail to impress. The same can certainly be said, on just about every level, for the choice of Arthouse’s second ‘Blu-ray Sampler’, Puccini’s Tosca.

Tosca

Filmed in 2006 in the stunning outdoor location of the ancient Roman arena in Verona, there are no grand or avant-garde concepts attached to the production, just a solid, straightforward account of Puccini’s melodrama of a love affair that becomes embroiled in revolutionary political affairs of state and ends in tragedy. No clever concepts need to be applied to Tosca – its themes are there on the surface and not politically engaged in the manner that Verdi would deal with such subject matter – and it’s underscored by the powerful tugging sweep of Puccini’s hugely romantic score. Employing Wagnerian leitmotifs none too subtly, (Dah-dah, DAH every time the villain Scarpia is even mentioned), compressing the drama down to a series of escalating events, the three acts clocking in at under two hours, Tosca is a superbly calculated and orchestrated music drama.

The stage setting here by Hugo de Ana is actually rather unspectacular for a Verona production, but it’s not an opera that needs the extravagant grandeur of a Zeffirelli setting. A few statues are scaled up to create an imposing presence of religion and the state over the affairs, but there are few changes made to the necessarily all-purpose stage for each of the acts. The only real set-piece is the ‘Te Deum’ at the end of Act 1, which involves cannons firing on the stage and the opening of the screen at the back to reveal a line-up of skull-faced bishops, and it’s highly effective, with shock and awe in all the right places. The two other famous set-pieces in the opera – the ceremonial decorating of Scarpia’s corpse with candles and the plunge of Tosca at the finale – are not exactly muted (it’s impossible for them to be muted with Puccini’s score powering them), but they just don’t take them to their usual lengths and they do consequently slightly lose their traditional impact.

Tosca

If the scenes work and are scarcely less effective than usual, it’s down to Puccini’s score to a large extent, but it also needs strong casting to put it across, and this production certainly has that. Best of all is Marcelo Álvarez – better known for his Verdi tenor roles than for Puccini, but Cavaradossi suits him well in this particular opera. Fiorenza Cedolins is fine and occasionally brilliant as Flora Tosca, and Scarpia (Dah-dah, DAH) is in the capable hands of the great Ruggero Raimondi. Obviously each is going to be judged by their showpiece aria – Scarpia’s ‘Te Deum’ in Act 1, Tosca’s ‘Vissi d’arte’ in Act 2 and Cavaradossi’s ‘E lucevan le stelle’ in Act 3 – and all of them are impressively delivered in singing and in dramatic terms. Daniel Oren conducts here and it’s an adequate account of the work, but a little too smooth, the instrumentation not always well balanced in the sound mix for maximum effect. This is not the best Tosca you’ll see by a long shot, but it’s a good performance nonetheless.

The quality of the Blu-ray is excellent. The image is clear and colourful, the high quality PCM and DTS HD-Master Audio 5.1 sound mixes well distributed, with nice detail. Subtitles are English, German, French, Spanish, Italian and Japanese. There are no extra features relating to the Verona production of Tosca on this budget release. Intended to showcase the Arthaus catalogue, the 47 trailers on the BD total 140 minutes of extracts from their TDK and Arthaus releases, which are right bang up-to-date and well worth a look through. There are however no subtitles on any of the trailers.

SonnambulaVincenzo Bellini - La Sonnambula

Royal Opera House, 2011 | Daniel Oren, Marco Arturo Marelli, Andreas Leisner, Celso Albelo, Eglise Gutiérrez, Elena Xanthoudakis, Michele Pertusi, Jihoon Kim, Elizabeth Sikora | Covent Garden, London - 2nd November 2011

It’s tempting to make excuses or a rationale for the limited musical arrangements and the somewhat contrived situation that leads to a melodramatic crisis in Bellini’s La Sonnambula. Updating the period and setting it in an Alpine sanatorium in the 1950s, influenced to some extent by Thomas Mann’s ‘The Magic Mountain‘, director Marco Arturo Marelli attempts to provide some psychological depth to the work, but in reality only confuses the issue further. Like most bel canto opera, it probably just better admitting that the only real reason for its scarcely credible plotline is to provide plenty of opportunities for virtuoso singing, and on that level alone, La Sonnambula – and indeed this production of it – more than justifies its existence.

For some commentators, it’s this simplicity that is in fact the key virtue of Bellini’s approach to the work. Its two act structure is a model of dramatic form, but it also reflects the simple attitudes that exist in its village-life setting in regard to the central issues, where a young woman Amina, is accused of infidelity to her fiancé Elvino on the eve of her wedding, having been found in the bedroom of a recently arrived stranger. Unaware that it’s her habit of sleepwalking that has led to her unfortunate night-time excursion, the opera’s theme then is based around the simple notion of purity as seen through the eyes of smalltown moralists who purport to uphold it yet question it in its sincerest form in Amina.

Judged purely on musical terms, you have to admit that Bellini gets it perfectly right. There’s not too much in the way of ambiguity in the characterisation or in the musical arrangements that underscore this straightforward conflict. Provided, that is, that you have a singer in the role of Amina with the kind of voice that can suggest simplicity and purity wronged and give it an air of authenticity in the ringing high notes and coloratura that express her innermost love for her husband-to-be and the sincerity of her intentions. And when you consider that this is a role for a Callas or a Sutherland, you can understand why it’s not as easy to pull off as it sounds.

Sonnambula

Fortunately, the Royal Opera House had two strong leads in Eglise Gutiérrez and Celso Albelo, both of whom were capable of reaching the extraordinary vocal challenges of the opera, even if they were both a little lacking in the charisma and the acting demands required to give their roles the kind of depth that Marco Arturo Marelli was undoubtedly looking for. There have been some criticisms of Gutiérrez’s Italian diction and the fact that her voice became increasingly thin on the high notes, both of which are true. Normally, I’d be inclined to regard such questions of technique as secondary in importance to the overall characterisation, but in the case of bel canto opera, characterisation is indeed subsidiary to the technique and is all about the singing. There are few enough singers in the history of opera, let alone around today, who are capable of meeting both demands in this kind of work however, so expectations surely need to be adjusted, and personally, I was impressed by how both leads met the challenges presented by this particular opera. No excuses need be made however for Elena Xanthoudakis as Lisa or Michele Pertusi as Count Rodolfo, both dramatically more convincing and dynamic as characters, both singing impressively, with real feeling for the work.

The use of chorus was also brilliantly employed. Choral work is not usually something you associate with bel canto opera – at least not until Verdi found a way of harnessing its possibilities as a means of popular expression – but it’s used here in just such a manner as the voice of public opinion, who watch and comment approvingly or disparagingly on everything that develops. Accordingly, they change with the wind, from “How could she, the faithless wench!” (I’m paraphrasing) and “How can this be anything but what it seems?” to “We always knew she was pure and true”. It’s realistic to the situation, but inevitably feels a little overstated, working contrary to the director’s intentions of giving the piece a realistic psychological or sociological treatment. So too, unfortunately, does the role of Elvino, whose change of heart and preparations to summarily dump Amina on their wedding day and marry Lisa instead is not only questionable, but his lack of faith in Amina is surely unforgivable.

A lot then depends on the dramatic twist to make it all work and fall into place, since it not only precipitates the drama, but also ultimately resolves it. Sleepwalking is an interesting notion that is worth exploring – the sleepwalker acting out unconscious inner thoughts and desires – but Marelli’s staging isn’t really able to do anything with it here in La Sonnambula, or make it any more dramatically convincing. There are no true human characteristics realistically expressed, no great revelations opened up, not even any real sympathy or comprehension shown along the way. Everything is as it appears and purely reactive to outward appearances.

Sonnambula

Which in a way sums up not only La Sonnambula, but this particular production as well. The score and the treatment here are perfectly in touch with its subject, the stage design impressive to look at and well-suited to the drama (if it isn’t able nonetheless to make the most of Amina’s famous perilous sleepwalking scene), and there’s genuine skill and talent evident on every level, but ultimately there’s no great depth to the work and it’s a disservice to the opera, the singers and to the audience to attempt to suggest that there’s anything more to La Sonnambula than is apparent on its enjoyably exquisite but hollow surface. That however, is more than good enough.

Riccardo Zandonai - Francesca da Rimini

L’Opéra National de Paris, Opéra Bastille | Daniel Oren, Giancarlo Del Monaco, Svetla Vassileva, Louise Callinan, Wojtek Smilek, George Gagnidze, Roberto Alagna, William Joyner, Grazia Lee, Manuela Bisceglie, Andrea Hill, Carol Garcia, Cornelia Oncioiu | L’Opéra National de Paris, 3rd February 2011

Riccardo Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini is the composer’s most famous opera, but it hasn’t been staged in Paris since its first performances nearly a century ago. For anyone unaware of what to expect from what is a relatively little-known opera, The Paris Opera promised a revival that would at least make a strong impression. They weren’t wrong about that.

Francesca

The biggest impression was made during Act One, Giancarlo del Monaco’s elaborate gothic-tinged nature morte set for Polenta Palace gardens in Ravenna resembling a colourful version of Jack Clayton’s film The Innocents (an adaptation of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw). It proved to be the perfect setting for the lush romantic and at the same time faintly sinister tone of the First Act, Zandonai’s score emphasising the sweepingly romantic element of Francesca and her ladies awaiting the arrival of Giovanni Malatesta, the man she has been arranged to marry, while minstrels offer foreboding songs of Tristan and Isolde and Galahad and Guinevere. The build-up to the arrival of the young man is incredible, the ladies of the household wound-up to a level of near hysteria at his imminent arrival, presaged by a strident rising crescendo that descends into a reverent hush, a murmur reminiscent of the humming song from Madama Butterfly (coincidentally also being performed at the Paris Opera in the current season), as Paolo el Bello, Paolo the Beautiful, arrives on stage. Roberto Alagna doesn’t even need to sing a note in the first Act – the curtain descends and the audience, if not necessarily impressed, are at least left somewhat dumbfounded.

The tragedy, as a careful reading of the above description will reveal, is of course that it is Paolo and not his brother Giovanni who arrives, so Francesca is badly mistaken when she immediately falls in love with the young man (and who wouldn’t with an entrance like that!), because in reality Giovanni, as she is about to discover, is a much less inviting prospect – harsh, cruel, ugly and crippled. As in Verdi’s Don Carlo – which Roberto Alagna played in the recent Met production – it’s another unfortunate in a love match that is over before it has really begun, and there are similar romantic complications, family troubles and political consequences that ensue. While there is accordingly similar sweeping romantic scoring, there is nothing thereafter quite as pronounced as in the First Act. That section was Zandonai’s Puccini, while what follows thereafter shows up his other two major influences, Wagner and Strauss. It’s almost as if Zandonai picks and mixes according to the mood and requirements of the scene. A light outside a bedroom as the signal for Paolo to steal surreptitiously into Francesca’s room evokes Tristan und Isolde, and Zadonai accordingly evokes Wagner.

Rather than being a jumble of influences and references however, Francesca manages to form a coherent musical whole, retaining a character of its own, one that, although it has a strong literary basis in the works of Dante and D’Annunzio, is certainly far from the Italian verismo school that the composer is usually associated with. But it’s not quite impressionistic either, as some of the Paris Opera’s writing on the opera in the programme notes suggest. Francesca da Rimini rather is romantic in a Verdi sense – political and romantic intrigues conflated, with a touch of Wagner Romanticism and post-Wagner modernism leading towards a more mid-twentieth century style. Ultimately however, it is fairly traditional in its operatic plot and intrigue, not offering any great surprises in the narrative development, in the romantic expressions of impossible love or in its inevitably tragic finale. Yet, every moment is perfectly judged by the composer and carried off impressively.

Francesca

Giancarlo del Monaco’s staging – always a matter of questionable taste – does however match the tone of the opera perfectly, drawing inspiration from the home and gardens of the story’s writer, Gabriele D’Annunzio’s villa the Vittoriale deglo Italiani. The sets are never as elaborate after Act 1, but matching the tone of the music, they provide solid, traditional, period rooms that are sparse but with significant bold touches. It would be unfair to say that Roberto Alagna has all his work done for him by the score, particularly after the huge Act 1 build-up, but rather it’s more a case that he often has to fight hard to keep above the huge sound of the orchestral accompaniment that underscores every emotion and utterance. He proves to be more than capable and is understandably and justifiably the big name attraction for his return to the Paris opera, but it is Svetla Vassileva as Francesca who impresses most. Both have challenging roles, with little pause or parlando – everything is sung and the opera is beautifully written for the voice, particularly for the female roles. The fascinating score, the dynamic arrangements and the sometimes unusual instruments featured gave the Orchestra of the Paris Opera at the Bastille a chance to show what they could do and they were most impressive, playing with clarity and precision.