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Riccardo Zandonai: Francesca Da Rimini
04 Oct 2009

Zandonai: Francesca Da Rimini

Besotted admirers of certain lesser-known operas of debatable merit sometimes include conductors, singers and opera house managers with the power to get their cherished rarity on stage.

Riccardo Zandonai: Francesca Da Rimini

Francesca: Daniela Dessì; Paolo: Fabio Armiliato; Samaritana: Giacinta Nicotra; Giovanni: Alberto Mastromarino; Ostasio: Giuseppe Altomare; Garsenda: Rosella Bevacqua; Adonella: Sabrina Modena; Altichiara: Francesca Rinaldi; Biancofiore: Roberta Canzian: La schiava Smaragdi: Angela Masi; Malatestino Dall'Occhio: L'udovít Ludha; Ser Toldo Berardengo: Francesco Zingariello; Il giullare: Domenico Colaianni: Il balestriere: Alessandro Pucci; Un prigioniero: Michelangelo Brecciaroli. Coro Lirico Marchigiano 'V. Bellini'. Marchigiana Philharmonic Orchestra.

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Riccardo Zandonai’s Francesca Da Rimini, one such opera, received an expensive staging at the Metropolitan Opera in 1984, with Renata Scotto and Placido Domingo, and promptly fell out of the Met’s repertory again. However, word is that the opera will, some 25 years later, reappear at the Met in a coming season. The Sferisterio Festival beat the Met to the punch in 2004, with a production both gorgeous musically and visually. For this opera to have any chance of working, it needs a spectacular staging, as most of the action happens off stage. Three great singers should be on hand as well, to add their vocal charisma to a musical mix potent in its colorful orchestration but woefully barren of memorable melody.

Then there’s the Tristan und Isolde problem, well covered by Richard Eckstein in his booklet essay (translated into English by Alan Seaton). In a medieval setting, a fiery woman of high rank is forced into a marriage she does not want, while the man she truly loves pursues her despite the risk to them both. In Tito Ricordi’s adaptation of Gabriele D’Annunzio’s verse play, in place of the Wagner opera’s dignified King Marke we have Giovanni, the elder brother of Francesca’s true love, the handsome Paolo. Giovanni stomps on as a warrior and brings the opera to its inevitable, and rather drawn out, end when he catches his brother with his wife and dispatches them both. More than in the narrative details, the similarity to Tristan und Isolde derives from the shared theme of an all-consuming love that overtakes two people. The significant difference in the depiction of that theme comes in comparing the complexity of Wagner’s lovers to the shallow, two-dimensional figures of this work. Here, two pretty people get caught up in each other’s prettiness and don’t see the threat of the ugliness around them. Soap opera dynamics take the place of the philosophical undercurrents in Wagner’s masterpiece.

Zandonai’s score keeps this work alive. There is the subtlety of color of Debussy mixed with the brash masculinity of Respighi. There is not, however, anything like the melodic inspiration of Puccini. Even one decent tune might have helped the opera find a less precarious place in the repertory.

The artists of this performance give the score every chance. Conductor Massimo Barbacini works wonders with the orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana. Although they do not appear much in the U.S., Daniela Dessi and Fabio Armiliato as Francesca and Paolo, respectively, have star power. Her soprano tends to tremble under pressure and his tone lacks personality, but they both inhabit their roles fully. As the dastardly Giovanni, Alberto Mastromarino grimaces and growls a lot, but he can’t erase memories of Cornell MacNeil tearing into the role in the video of the Met production.

Massimo Gasparon directed and also designed the sets and costumes. His direction provides no surprises but supports the almost decadently opulent atmosphere of the music, as does the gorgeous set of marble and gold leaf and the silky, brocaded fabric of the costumes. The staging is as beautiful as the lovers - if with no more depth.

Hardcore fans of this work should be thrilled by this performance, no matter how much they already love the earlier Metropolitan video (see below). Your reviewer finds the work hard to take seriously, but when produced with the commitment and, frankly, the expense that it receives here, some operatic pleasures can be had.

Chris Mullins

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