Mar. 16 Met simulcast: Francesca da Rimini

The Mets ‘Francesca da Rimini’ visually appealing, dramatically appalling

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

By David Rubin

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.

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.

Details Box:

What: Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini, Simulcast Live in HD 

When: March 16, 2013

Who: Metropolitan Opera

Time: Approximately 4 hours, with 3 intermissions

Where: Metropolitan Opera House, New York

Encore presentation: 6:30 p.m. EST, Wednesday, April 3, 2013


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  • 3/18/2013 2:11 AM Allan Pearson wrote:
    Thanks for this review. I didn't know this opera at all, though I remember the hullaballoo about the 1984 production and probably heard a Texaco radio broadcast with Scotto, Domingo and MacNeil back then and would have had, and read, the Opera News issue back then. My big personal question after such exposure to a work I don't really know is whether I would return to such a performance, and my answer is NO. I often enjoyed the music, but the work overemphasizes the sections with the female attendants to Francesca, making these sections trite and boring. Would have appreciated Bryan Hymel's voice, good looks and charisma also more than the tenor in question in this production.

    Ultimately what made this production slow moving and sleep inducing were the constant, long scene changes and three intermissions. A production in today's age would have moved faster and been more cinematic, though it was of one-time interest only to see how a mammoth production of 1984 had to be almost built from scratch in all the pauses.

    As a result, I think this review is right-on in its criticism, though I like Eva-Marie Westbroek as singer a lot, having heard her Sieglinde live in her Bayreuth Festspiele debut in "Die Walkuere."

    Perhaps the MET will keep this production around in storage for another 30 years or so and bring it back, but I definitely won't be around then, and wouldn't attend even if I were. Once was enough, although there were occasional moments of musical beauty to be enjoyed. And I did not play the composer-guessing game as many others have, as I was trying to hear Zandonai.

  • 3/24/2013 8:57 AM Don George wrote:
    I was amazed at the lack of sensitivity in the Francesca review. As far as I'm concerned, it's the most beautiful production the Met has ever put on the stage and I'm been attending performances there since the fifth grade back in the 50s. True, the casting was terrible; this piece calls for lustrous voices in the Italianate style but I'm afraid neither Ms. Westbrook or Mr. Giordani; perfect Gelb miscasting. Ms. Westbrook has the high notes but not the lyricism required and Mr. Giordani, he has pretty much lost his voice these days, singing with much strain and belting out the high notes with difficulty and no subtly at all.

    As far as the piece goes, it's one of my favorites. Such gorgeous music; I'd pay the ticket price just for the first act cello solo and as far as the tenor not singing at all in the first act, how could the reviewer have missed the sensitive pantomine during the Act 1 ending. Would that other composers showed that restraint. Words and notes could simply not convey the feelings at that moment. The almost modal harmonies convey the time of the piece so wonderfully. The beauty of the piece as in other pieces like Verdi's Falstaff is that you want way more of those very lyrical moments but the composer just whets the appetite for more.

    The orchestra is gorgeous, a cross between German and Italian sensibilities somewhat in the manner of Wolf Ferari and Busoni and I frankly love the combination. This is NOT Manon Lescaut nor is it Cavalleria, both pieces with emotions worn on the sleeve and bathed in that sensous romantic music of the time. We don't need to always have loud and high for a piece to be a good one nor do we always need huge bursts of emotion to keep our attention. If that were the case Pelleas would never have had a second performance.

    I would ask the reader to listen to this piece without trying to hear Strauss, Mascagni, Verdi and Puccini or any other composers. It's not second or third rate at all but a first rate piece that deserves many more performances. It just requires listening to with sensitive eras that have forgotten previous bombast. You can't judge Mozart with Wagnerian ears you know.
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