Francesca da Rimini
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Francesca da Rimini

Opéra du Rhin

In Review Strausbourg Francesca hdl 318
Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini in Strasbourg
© Klara Beck

RICCARDO ZANDONAI (1883–1944) remains a singular and enigmatic figure in Italian opera: his musical language owes something to the Italian verismo of his teacher Mascagni, but it is not free of the influences of Wagner and French symbolism. His most enduring opera isFrancesca da Rimini, based on the play of the same name by poet Gabriele d’Annunzio, which had its premiere in Turin in 1914. It was a brave decision of the Opéra du Rhin to program the work, which has become something of a rarity, in a new production by Nicola Raab (seen Dec. 14). Giuliano Carella conducted the Strasbourg forces.

Act I is dramatically the weakest, and Raab chose to present Francesca’s tricked marriage to Gianciotto, the ugliest of the three Malatesta brothers, as a flashback. Soprano Saioa Hernández’s Francesca was seen from curtain up, looking vexed on a chaise longue, while an actress-double accompanied her through the lead-up to her marriage. Raab rightly focused on the close links to the legend of Tristan and Isolde that underlie D’Annunzio’s adaptation of a passage from Dante’s Inferno and the obsessional love of three brothers. The presentation of the rose to the handsome brother, Paolo il Bello, and the sharing of cups of wine gave this cursed, forbidden love Wagnerian flavor. The production was spare and concise, with a revolving column serving for both interior and exterior scenes; costumes and set were designed by Ashley Martin-Davis. Raab’s uncluttered approach gathered more pertinence in the final act, in which the obsessive jealousy of Giovanni Malatesta led him to run his sword through Francesca and Paolo with one blistering erotic thrust. 

The first half of the evening on December 14 seemed overplayed, with both orchestra and singers in a battle for decibels, which generally favored the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg. The ensemble played with gripping force throughout the evening under Carella, who has an obvious passion for the work. After the interval, balance fortunately improved, and Hernández’s Francesca brought some nuanced singing to her supplications to Paolo, with firm and thrilling spinto tone throughout her range. All her portrayal needed was a little more attention to the text to bring an extra dimension to her performance. 

Marcelo Puente, her Paolo, is a tall, good-looking man; though inclined to strike poses onstage, he gave an exciting, if stretched, vocal performance, the effect of his big, penetrating tenor marred only by a fast midrange vibrato. Baritone Marco Vratogna’s Giovanni lo Sciancato was an impressive achievement, with terrifying power and a threatening stage presence, although a little less vocal force might have prevented some hectoring baritone tone. A more detailed approach came from tenor Tom Randle as Malatestino dall’Occhio, who loses his eye in battle, falling in love with Francesca when she takes care of him after he is wounded. Torn between jealousy and love, Malatestino betrays Francesca to his lame brother Giovanni. Randle’s singing lacked the power of his colleagues, but he compensated with knowing intensity. 

There was good support all around, with a special mention deserved by mezzos Josy Santos, as Francesca’s forceful sister Samaritana, and Idunnu Münch, who brought a touching sympathy to the slave girl Smaragdi. Soprano Francesca Sorteni sounded very fine as Francesca’s lady-in-waiting, Biancofiore.  —Stephen J. Mudge 

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