This Saturday at 12:00 pm the Met's "Live in HD" series presents a rare gem
in Riccardo Zandonai's gorgeous opera, Francesca da Rimini. Roanoke audiences can enjoy an afternoon at the Met in our local home for these HD broadcasts at Virginia Western.
Zandonai was one of a handful of composers born the generation after Puccini, Strauss and Debussy. Along with Ottorino Respighi (famous for tone poems on the Pines, Fountains, and Festivals of Rome), Zandonai forged a style that combined Puccini's innate lyricism with the colorful harmonies and orchestrations of Debussy and Strauss. Francesca da Rimini is a great opera to simply listen to. It is even more compelling in the Met's grand and traditional production.
The story of Francesca is from Canto V of Dante's Inferno, where Dante and his tour-guide through hell, Virgil cross through Limbo to enter hell proper. They meet a "who's who" of mythical and literary figures killed for crimes of passion. Achilles, Helen of Troy, Dido, Cleopatra, Tristan and other figures from both classical antiquity and the popular medieval romance legends populate the outer-most circle of Dante's Inferno.
Francesca tells Dante her tragic love story (and the poet based this episode on a scandalously true story). Zandonai's opera is based on a play by D'Annunzio dramatizing this doomed romance. It is remarkable how many different artistic representations have been inspired from a few lines of verse in a 14th century poem about a couple history would otherwise forget. One of the reasons this episode has attracted so much attention is an unexpected twist (not in the plot of Francesca's story, but in the Inferno itself). Dante is narrating this supernatural journey, and after hearing the tragic love tale he tells us, "my pity overwhelmed me and I felt myself go slack; / swooning as in death, I fell." The poet is overcome with emotion and faints. How operatic!
The plot centers around the arranged marriage of Francesca to the powerful Malatesta family. Since the eldest Malatesta is disabled (a "hunchback" like Rigoletto), Paolo, il bello - "the handsome" - is sent in his stead to meet Francesca. They fall in love at first sight over one of the most glorious cello solos in classical music. You can imagine how the story might play out from there, especially when you throw a jealous younger sibling (also in love with Francesca) into the mix.
(Ingres: Francesca & Paolo, with Gianciotto spying)
No fewer than 19 operas are based on Francesca (Rachmaninoff's one-act vies with Zandonai's for most popular). Tone poems by Tchaikovsky and Rossini and 1/2 dozen others join as many different dramatic versions of the story for the theatre. Rodin's famous sculpture, "The Kiss" was originally entitled "Francesca da Rimini."
I know I will be asked "why haven't I heard this opera before?" and "why isn't this great opera performed more?"
The boring but true answer comes down to numbers and the financial risk for companies in mounting unknown operas. This is compounded when said opera calls for a large cast and orchestra, and begs for a lavish production. Here the Met delivers. Francesca and Paolo have an afterlife that would really make Dante swoon!