The Met Live in HD: Francesca da Rimini

A scene from Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini with Eva-Maria Westbroek and Marcello Giordani.(Photo: Marty Sohl/Fathom Events)
A scene from Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini with Eva-Maria Westbroek and Marcello Giordani.(Photo: Marty Sohl/Fathom Events)

A few years ago I was doing doctoral work and the time came for me to choose a dissertation subject. I went into the graduate advising office and announced I would be researching early 20th century Italian opera-not Puccini. Leoncavallo, Giordani, Mascagni, Montemezzi, Cilea and Zandonai.

I was met with blank stares. The room had not heard of any one of these composers. It was suggested that if I wanted to work in the early 20th century, I should research Anton Webern.  I said, Webern never sold out a 3,000 seat opera house.

That remark didn’t go over well. Yes, I am Doctor Purdy, thank you.

In truth, none of my Italian friends mentioned above are great composers. They were good composers, writing theatrically strong works demanded by the opera houses of 100 years ago. The world was being introduced to the cinema, and opera libretti and music had to reflect the strong, up close emotions depicted in films, albeit without sound.

Riccardo Zandonai (1883-1944) was the most creative of the group. He immersed himself in the music of Debussy and Satie. He knew Stravinsky and he knew jazz. He didn’t use the declamatory style then in favor in Italy. Zandonai uses church modes rather than accepted harmonies. Paolo and Francesca meet to a viola da gamba, not a cello. Music – the flow< of music was important to Zandonai.  He bathed words in music, not vice versa.

Francesca and Paolo are in the second circle of hell in Dante's Inferno. Dante and Francesca were contemporaries, but 13th century Italians were caught in the clan wars between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines.

Francesca tells Dante "Nessun' grand dolore che trovarsi in tempo felice nella  miseria. There is no greater suffering than to recall happy times in misery."

Francesca (1255-1285) had been tricked into marrying Lord Giovanni Malatesta, called "The Lame."  Knowing Francesca would refuse to marry a violent older man, Giovanni's brother Paolo il bello (The beautiful) was introduced to Francesca and was the proxy groom. Only on her wedding night did Francesca learn she was in fact married to Giovanni. Nevertheless, Paolo and the daughter of the Lords of Rimini had fallen in love at first sight:

Paolo and Francesca are eventually found in flagrante and are killed by Giovanni. They are run through, together, one into the other. As adulterers, Dante consigns them to hell-where they earn our pity.

Being brother and sister-in-law, Paolo and Francesca are often in each other’s presence. Paolo recalls Francesca’s gift of a rose, likening it to the lips of a fresh wound:  “Ma sol vidi una rosa…d’un labbra della fresca ferita”  Wen alone they read aloud the tragedy of Lancelot and Guenevere, and their relationship is quickly consummated

These clips come from the 1984 staging at the Metropolitan. This was the first production of Francesca da Rimini in 70 years. The press was sharply critical of the money spent on a sumptuous production of an obscure opera.  Despite Renata Scotto and Placido Domingo, this revival had poor box office. As a fan of Zandonai and the story of Francesca da Rimini, I’m grateful the Metropolitan is reviving the work 28 years after I saw three performances from standing room.

Come see Francesca da Rimini that Saturday at 1 pm at a half a dozen movie theaters around Columbus, check Fathom Events’ website for more details. Eva Maria Westbroeck, Marcello Giordani and Mark Delavan sing the principal roles. The staging I remember as ornate and beautiful. No minimal set and costume nonsense here. I doubt there will be future revivals. This is a splendid opportunity to witness a rich staging now out of fashion of an opera that deserves a wider audience.

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