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MERCADANTE: Francesca da Rimini

DVD Button Bonilla, Martinez, Wakizono; Sungu, Rivas, Di Matteo; Chorus of the Transylvania State Philharmonic Orchestra of Cluj-Napoca, Orchestra Internazionale d’Italia, Luisi. Production: Pizzi. Dynamic 57753 (Blu-ray)/37753 (DVD), 200 mins., subtitled

Recordings Francesca hdl 917
Lady in Red: Bonilla in Martina Franca
Studio Ricordi
Recordings Francesca cover 917

HOW OFTEN DO YOU get to see the stage premiere of an opera written in 1831—one by a major Italian composer, no less? Saverio Mercadante penned his Francesca da Rimini on commission from Madrid, but a still-hazy set of circumstances sent him and his new score to Milan instead, where intrigue ensued and the opera was again not produced. After that, Mercadante gave up on getting his Francesca performed. Maybe it was because Rossini (three years his senior) had recently written Guillaume Tell, and Donizetti and Bellini (his juniors by, respectively, two and six years) already had Anna Bolena and Il Pirata under their belts; Francesca—gearedto the tastes of a Spanish public just discovering, and thrilling to, Rossini’s opere serie—must already have seemed outdated to Mercadante, whose most celebrated, most sophisticated works lay ahead. In fact, Francesca—with its imposing length (more than three hours), its elaborately extended formal numbers, its conflicted soprano heroine singing a duet with its en travesti mezzo hero—calls to my mind Semiramide, Rossini’slast grand opera seria, from 1823. That’s a compliment as well as a description. 

Any lover of bel canto should welcome the unearthing of this too-long-buried treasure. I’d hoped the excavation would happen four years earlier, when Wexford announced the opera as part of its 2012 season. That production never happened; there were problems assembling a viable performing edition. It would likely have surpassed this one, though, from Italy’s Festival della Valle d’Itria in summer 2016. I don’t mean musically; under Fabio Luisi’s sure, stylish guidance, orchestra, chorus and soloists give a fine reading of Elisabetta Pasquini’s freshly assembled critical edition. But Pier Luigi Pizzi’s staging (he also designed the drab set and the plain costumes) does nothing to make Felice Romani’s recycled, Inferno-inspired libretto theatrically compelling: this Francesca dies of virginal grief in a convent, her marriage to Lanciotto unconsummated and her liaison with his brother, Paolo, having progressed no further than a few hugs and kisses. Inspired, I suppose, by the never-ending winds buffeting Dante’s Paolo and Francesca, Pizzi accentuates the chronic, comparably potent midsummer breezes of the outdoor theater in the courtyard of Martina Franca’s Palazzo Ducale: the costumes never stop billowing (even while the plot stays put), and the stage-right draperies cast giant, dancing shadows on the set’s monotonous back wall. What’s more, he adds actual dance; Gheorghe Iancu’s choreography is at best innocuous, at worst intrusive: in the crucial love scene toward the end of Act I, the ill-fated sister- and brother-in-law read the tale of Lancelot and Guinevere on a passerelle as, on the stage proper, two dancers grapple sweatily, getting attention that, skilled as they are, they just shouldn’t get.  

The young singers were hitherto unknown to me, but I’ll certainly remember their names. As Francesca, Spanish soprano Leonor Bonilla reveals a lovely, expressive lyric soprano and a face and manner to match. She even, without embarrassing herself, executes a little dance of her own to introduce her Act I scena. Japan’s Aya Wakizono, badly costumed by Pizzi, makes a singularly unconvincing-looking leading man, but her dark, throbbing mezzo and technical acuity earn high marks for her Paolo. Apart from some thready top notes, Turkish tenor Merto Sungu sings a handsome, stylish Lanciotto and delivers the text with uncommon relish. Denied an aria of his own (the other principals each have two), Italian basso Antonio Di Matteo contributes strongly to the ensembles as the heroine’s protective papa. They all prove worthy of a Mercadante prima, even as Pizzi’s windy vision earns him at least a short spell in Purgatory.  —Patrick Dillon



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