Riccardo Zandonai (1883-1944) wrote 13 operas only one of which roams the outskirts of the standard operatic repertory – Francesca da Rimini. The Met telecast the opera today as its penultimate HD presentation of this season. The opera’s libretto is a shortened version (by the publisher Tito Riccordi) of Gabriele D’Annunzio’s tragedy of the same name. The operas numerous purple passages clearly show D’Annunzio’s super heated literary style.

Premiered in 1914 Francesca da Rimini was first staged by the Met 1916 with Frances Alda in the title role. It was brought back in its current production in 1984 as a vehicle for Renata Scotto and Placido Domingo. Ermanno Mauro replaced Domingo in 1986 and then the opera went into storage barrels near Newark Airport. The only reason I can think of for bringing it back is the excellence of Ezio Frigero’s sets and Franca Squarciapino’s costumes.

The opera is a well crafted work of no originality which mirrors the musical styles of a century ago and which requires a soprano who can get more out of the role than than its composer put into it. Every now and then there’s a hint of a tune which quickly recedes into the well made orchestration. There are long periods where nothing much happens other than the slow advance of the plot. The best writing is in the last act where Francesca rejects the sexual advances of her brother-in-law – the one she’s not sleeping with. Her husband (a baritone of course) get to throw a vocal fit when he informed of his wife’s infidelity. The brief encounter between Francesca and Paolo just before they’re murdered is nice. But there’s nothing in the opera to evoke the emotion that Dante felt when he encountered the lovers in the second circle of hell; he was so overcome that he fainted. For this level of tragic and all consuming love Verdi or Wagner was needed. Zandonai was clearly not in this league.

The Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek was given the name role. Ms Westbroek has a large and attractive voice that served her well in her Met debut role – Sieglinde in Die Walküre. She is a fine artist but the morbidezza required for Francesca just not part of her vocal toolkit. Renata Scotto had it, though she was a little past her best when she sang Francesca at the Met. So did Mirella Freni. The rest of the roles are fairly easy to cast.

Marcello Giordani has built an international career out of being adequate to good. He had to withdraw from the title role of Benvenuto Cellini earlier this season because the part is too difficult for his current vocal state – it’s on the way down. But Paolo lies entirely in his comfort zone and he was accordingly adequate to good throughout the performance. Baritone Mark Delavan is a big man with a big blustery voice that is perfect for the cuckolded Gianciotto. Character tenor Robert Brubaker was appropriately oily and evil as the youngest of the three brothers. Conductor Marco Armiliato had not led this opera before his current run with the Met. He seemed to believe in the opera as expressed during his intermission interview. His conducting was sensitive and effective. I think he got as much out of the score as was there.

This leaves Piero Faggioni’s almost 30 year old production and the sets and costumes mentioned above. The sets are beautiful and evoke the feel if not the reality of fragmented Italy just before the Renaissance. The costumes, especially in the first act were reminiscent of Botticelli. Accordingly the visual overwhelmed the audible, an effect that’s rare and unfortunate. But I suppose it’s no surprise when you have an opera where the author of the words is better known that the composer of its music. The downside of the splendid sets was that it took forever to move them. The three intermissions were almost as long as the opera itself.

Finally, Gary Halvorson had a relapse of the close-up disease. This malady was especially unfortunate when a cast of mostly over weight and entirely middle aged principals were the victims of the video camera’s relentless truth telling. In summary, a fine production in search of an opera. There was a contemporary Italian author who knew a lot about searches. But that could be another opera.

 

Metropolitan Opera House
March 16, 2013 Matinee

HD Transmission/SimulcastBroadcast

FRANCESCA DA RIMINI
Zandonai-D’Annunzio/Tito Ricordi

Francesca da Rimini…..Eva-Maria Westbroek
Paolo……………….Marcello Giordani
Giovanni…………….Mark Delavan
Malatestino………….Robert Brubaker
Samaritana…………..Dina Kuznetsova
Smaragdi…………….Ginger Costa-Jackson
Garsenda…………….Disella Làrusdóttir
Biancofiore………….Caitlin Lynch
Altichiara…………..Patricia Risley
Donella……………..Renée Tatum
Simonetto……………John Moore
Ostasio……………..Philip Horst
Toldo……………….Keith Jameson
Berlingerio………….Stephen Gaertner
Archer………………Hugo Vera
Prisoner…………….Dustin Lucas

Cello Solo…………..Jerry Grossman

Conductor……………Marco Armiliato

Production…………..Piero Faggioni
Set designer…………Ezio Frigerio
Costume designer……..Franca Squarciapino
Lighting designer…….Gil Wechsler
Choreographer………..Donald Mahler
Stage Director……….David Kneuss
TV Director………….Gary Halvorson