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The death of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta by Alexandre Cabanel (1870) [Source: Wikipedia]
16 Sep 2019

Tempestuous Francesca da Rimini opens Concertgebouw Saturday matinee series

Two Russian love letters to the tragic thirteenth century noblewoman Francesca da Rimini inaugurated the Saturday matinee series at the Concertgebouw.

Tempestuous Francesca da Rimini opens Concertgebouw Saturday matinee series

A review by Jenny Camilleri

Above: The death of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta by Alexandre Cabanel (1870) [Source: Wikipedia]


The elegantly precise Stanislav Kochanovsky returned to the NTR ZaterdagMatinee to lead the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic in thrillingly tumultuous performances of Tchaikovsky’s symphonic fantasy, Francesca da Rimini and the eponymous one-act opera by Sergei Rachmaninov. Poor Francesca da Polenta – she was led to believe she was about to set up house in Rimini with handsome Paolo, when, in fact, he’d been sent to woo her for his less physically favored older brother. When her husband caught them embracing, he killed them both. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, Paolo and Francesca are doomed, with other adulterous couples, to be buffeted in the afterlife by an eternal whirlwind, a metaphor for the earthly passions that had swept them away. But, although he puts them in hell, Dante assigns them the mildest level of torture, while he smites their killer, Malatesta, deep into the icy ninth circle, with others who have murdered their relatives. The poet is so touched by Francesca’s fate that, when she tells him her story, he collapses, overcome by emotion.

In their similarly structured retellings, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov are both emotionally instructed by Dante. They both frame the episode in which the lovers’ submit to their forbidden passion by scenes of the pitiless infernal winds. Tchaikovsky’s spiral up swift and high, Rachmaninov’s are more heavily orchestrated and move ominously like a dark, dense mass. His chorus of the wailing damned gives his hell a human shape, however faceless. On Saturday, the Netherlands Radio Choir raised their voices in horrifying and beautiful desperation. But even in Tchaikovsky’s voiceless perdition, Kochanovsky managed to suggest echoes of human cries by filing a sharp edge onto the winds and strings. This piercing orchestral quality contrasted with the restrained lyricism of the love scene, which culminates, as in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, in the brutal interruption of an ecstatic embrace. As in his earlier appearances conducting Russian operas in Amsterdam, Kochanovsky proved a masterful storyteller, knowing when to go in for grand gestures, as in the violent tornados of both finales, as well as how to let a passage such a Tchaikovsky’s refined romance release its perfume gradually.

Rachmaninov’s opera, which sets a libretto by Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest, is broodier and less graphically descriptive than Tchaikovsky’s fantasy. It has the feel of a symphonic poem, with the orchestra always having at least as much to say as the voices. Besides finding the Radio Philharmonic close to their best, this concert version upheld the ZaterdagMatinee’s reputation for engaging choice vocalists. Alongside the chilling chorus, tenor Dmitry Golovnin as Dante and bass Mikhail Kolelishvili as his guide, the Ghost of Virgil, perched high behind the orchestra, ensured that the singing in hell was of the highest order. A last-minute substitute for soprano Venera Gimadieva, Maria Bayankina was a dignified, slightly elusive Francesca. She has an attractive middle voice and the slight flutter in her metallic top lent the necessary tension to the love duet.

Bayankina and the honey-voiced tenor Oleg Dolgov in the role of Paolo handled the demands of their unsparing, high-lying music very well, holding their own over the rich orchestral carpet. Still, there was something missing in terms of passion and the real erotic fire was stoked in the orchestra. Here again Kochanovsky displayed how expertly he uses space and dynamics to bring details to the fore. The vocal performance that equaled his expressive powers had come just before the lovers’ tryst, in Lanciotto Malatesta’s jealousy monologue. Vladislav Sulimsky turned his scene into a mini-opera, eliciting with his formidable baritone fear and revulsion, but also pity and understanding. Malatesta’s obsessing on unrequited desire and hate-filled plotting may not be as well known as other jealousy arias, such as “Eri tu” from Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera. But an interpretation such as Sulimsky’s, especially when accompanied so sensitively and vividly in the orchestra, almost made the case that it should be.

Jenny Camilleri

Tchaikovsky: Francesca da Rimini, Op.32
Rachmaninov: Francesca da Rimini, Op.25

Mikhail Kolelishvili, Ghost of Virgil; Dmitry Golovnin, Dante Alighieri; Vladislav Sulimsky, Lanciotto Malatesta; Maria Bayankina, Francesca Malatesta; Oleg Dolgov, Paolo Malatesta. Stanislav Kochanovsky, Conductor. Netherlands Radio Choir (Groot Omroepkoor). Netherlands Radio Philharmonic. Heard at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, on Saturday, the 14th of September, 2019.

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