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.