19 Mar 2013

Francesca da Rimini at the Met

Sets and costumes are gorgeous and the singing is good, but the libretto’s slow and continuously interrupted dramatic action grows tiresome

Ricardo Zandonai’s 1914 opera Francesca da Rimini is a one-act potboiler buried in a four-act sarcophagus.

The opera tells a simple, lurid story of lust and infidelity, drawn from Dante’s Inferno and a play by the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio.

Poor Francesca is married off, for political reasons, to the lame and ugly Giovanni Malatesta, although she thinks she is going to be marrying his handsome brother, Paolo. When Paolo confesses his love for her, they cheat on Giovanni. The affair is discovered by Giovanni’s younger brother, Malatestino, a one-eyed weasel, who tips off Giovanni. The inevitable then occurs as Giovanni kills both Francesca and Paolo after catching them in the act.

Zandonai’s teacher Mascagni could have turned this tale into a terrific one-act companion piece to his Cavalleria Rusticana. But Zandonai and his librettist Tito Ricordi (Verdi’s music publisher) larded the tale with all sorts of extraneous business that slows down the dramatic arc and blunts its violence. In this case truly half would have been twice as good.

The libretto has all sorts of obvious dramatic problems. Paolo appears at the end of Act 1 but never sings, merely locking eyes and fingers with Francesca. The villains Giovanni and Malatestino don’t appear until Act 2, and then disappear in Act 3 entirely. Neither has a role that is fully fleshed out. Indeed, only the mooning Francesca seems to have captivated Ricordi and Zandonai. The action is repeatedly interrupted by unnecessary paeans to the arrival of spring or choral giggling from Francesca’s handmaidens.

Were Zandonai a more skillful composer he might have sustained a four-act treatment, but his strengths are as an orchestrator and a provider of special musical effects. He can also whip up a huge noise from the orchestra with climax after climax, which I guess is not such a bad idea given the theme of this opera. But such repeated climaxes get old quickly.

Francesca_2544-s.gifMarcello Giordani as Paolo il Bello and Eva-Maria Westbroek as Francesca da Rimini

John C. G. Waterhouse, writing in the New Grove Dictionary of Opera, accurately took Zandonai’s measure as a composer, noting his “judicious borrowings from Strauss and Debussy.” His strongest virtue is conveying a sense of atmosphere. Met Conductor Fabio Armiliato, interviewed during one of the three intermissions, tossed in Wagner, Cilea, Mascagni and Puccini as other influences. All can be heard flitting in and out of the score. While Zandonai is quite skillful at word setting, his music is without personality of its own.

Zandonai writes in sentences, while Puccini and Strauss write in pages and Wagner writes in whole chapters. Just as one thinks a real melody with some development is about to start, Zandonai changes direction. The duet for Paolo and Francesca in Act 3, when they finally consummate their love, cries out for a Manon Lescaut moment. It never comes. All the tension in the final scene, when Francesca and Paolo are murdered, is bled out of it with an interminable opening exchange between Francesca and her ladies in waiting. When Giovanni finally arrives to stab her, it’s all slam bang. Zandonai had Verdi’s Otello as a model for this murder, but he seems to have learned nothing from it.

With an eight-month season, the Met has many slots to fill. This production is the first revival of the original, mounted 27 years ago for Placido Domingo in the role of Paolo and Renata Scotto as Francesca. The production — by Piero Faggioni with sets by Ezio Frigerio and costumes by Franca Squarciapino — is a beauty. It almost justifies ticket prices north of $250. Francesca’s various gowns have the silhouette of a 14th century Italian woman of means, but the embroidery is pre-Raphaelite. Every stage picture could have walked off the walls of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Every character is in a period costume of exquisite color and detail. While the ears may have been bored, the eyes never were, particularly in the close-ups of the HD telecast.

Soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek and tenor Marcello Giordani were the illicit lovers. Both have large voices and had no trouble with the notes, although both are short on vocal allure. Westbroek never projected the vulnerability and fragility Francesca must embody if one is to care about her grim fate.

The villains were a lot more fun. Baritone Mark Delavan was a nasty Giovanni, with a booming bottom but slightly constricted top. Tenor Robert Brubaker (soon to be singing Mime in the Met’s spring Ring) made Malatestino a leering pervert with dead-on intonation.

Of the smaller roles, mezzo Ginger Costa-Jackson stood out as Francesca’s slave Smaragdi, a role written for contralto.

Marco Armiliato, conducting the opera for the first time, moved it along well and supported the singers generously. The Met Orchestra seemed to relish wallowing in this aural soup.

Tchaikovsky took a shot at the Francesca story in his orchestral fantasy of the same name. In just 26 minutes he manages to say all that need be said, capturing the frenzy and passion of the story in a way Zandonai never does. His surging theme for the lovers has already knocked out of my head everything Zandonai wrote for them.

Only 40 or so people attended this performance at Destiny USA’s Regal Theater in Syracuse, many fewer than usual. Perhaps the Met is offering too many of these telecasts. Perhaps the novelty is wearing off. Perhaps the audience is tired of the relentless close-ups and quick cuts. Or perhaps the audience is just too smart to waste four hours and $24 on this third-rate work.

David Rubin

Click here for cast and production information.

This review first appeared at CNY Café Momus. It is reprinted with the author's permission.