Riccardo Zandonai was once considered Puccini’s successor. He wrote about thirteen operas, of which actually only Conchita (1911), Francesca da Rimini (1914) and Giulietta e Romeo (1921) were ever really successful. Nowadays, they are seldom performed and the average opera lover gets no further than Francesca da Rimini. A pity, because his operas are a pure pleasure to listen to.
Francesca da Rimini
Francesca da Polenta (1255 -1285), better known as Francesca da Rimini was a contemporary of Dante Alighieri, who “granted” her a place in his ‘ La Divina Commedia’, but in the fifth circle. Sad, because she did not deserve that and she must surely get a pardon.
The story: to seal the peace between the houses of da Polenta and Malatesta, Francesca must marry the eldest of the Malatesta brothers, Giovanni (Gianciotto). However, he is so hideous that the chances of her saying “no” are extremely high. To fool her, she is introduced to his younger brother, Paolo il Bello. Francesca immediately falls for the beautiful Paolo and
he too feels an all-consuming love at first sight.
The reality is gruesome: Francesca wakes up as Gianciotto’s wife. And to complicate matters further, the youngest of the Malatesta brothers, Maletestino the one-eyed, also falls in love with her.
Francesca rejects him, after which he swears revenge. He does not have to wait long: he discovers that Francesca and Paolo are lovers, reveals this to Gianciotto, after which both lovers are killed.
Romance at its finest, no wonder it was an inspiration for many a painter and tone poet, but literature was not left behind either. Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863 – 1938) wrote a beautiful play about it (a fun fact: the leading role was played by none other than Eleonore Duse, perhaps the greatest Italian actress ever), which was adapted for an opera by Riccardo Zandonai in 1914.
Zandonai was a pupil of Mascagni and a true verismo adept, but at the same time he was also a Wagnerian. He was also a great admirer of Debussy and Strauss, and you can hear all this in his music. The opera is sultry, sensual, but also extraordinarily lyrical.
The leading role requires not only a big, dramatic voice with plenty of lyricism (I call Francesca Isolde’s little sister), but also the ability to shape the needed all-consuming passion. The greatest Francesca’s were therefore the singers who dared to go beyond “just” singing: Magda Olivero, Raina Kabaivanska, Renata Scotto and Nelly Miriciou.
On 31 January 2011 Francesca da Rimini was performed for the first time in Paris, at the Opéra Bastille. The superb cast led by Svetla Vassileva and Roberto Alagna certainly lived up to the high expectations. Director Giancarlo del Monaco, though, had to put up with a deluge of boos.
Ontmoetingscène van Francesca (Svetla Vassileva) en Paolo (Roberto Alagna). Foto: Mirco Maglioca/Opéra National de Paris
Whether Svetla Vassileva achieves real greatness only time will tell, but at the premiere she was certainly impressive. A beautiful, slender lady with a traditionally lyrical voice with which she could reach all corners even in that immense opera house.
Roberto Alagna was a near-perfect Paolo. He has an ideal timbre for the role and as his voice has grown considerably over the years, he knows how to handle the fiercest passages. In the more lyrical moments I found him less convincing and at times he sounded downright tired, especially in the high notes. Not all notes were pure either, and at times he
seemed to overhype himself. Still, he was unquestionably credible.
George Gagnidze (Gianciottto) disappointed me. His voice is undeniably big and impressive, but woolly. And I found little substance in what he sang.
William Joyner, on the other hand, was a Malatestino out of thousands. Often the role is played by a good ‘comprimiario’, well – here a would-be great was in the starting blocks!
Beautiful also was Samaritana (Louise Callinan) and the small role of Smaragdi was beautifully performed by Cornelia Onciuiu.
Giancarlo del Monaco’s direction was actually exactly what you could expect: realistic through and through, which in itself has nothing wrong with it at all. But in his attempt to recreate d’Annunzio’s world, he created a mishmash of the Middle Ages and Art Deco.
Kamer in ‘Il Vittoriale degli Italiani’, villa van d’Annunzio. Foto courtasy Italy Magazine
The Malatesta’s palace was a literal recreation of “Il Vittoriale degli Italiani”, the poet’s last residence, and the effigy of his bald head “adorned” the front screen.
The ladies wore dresses that seemed straight out of the paintings of Klimmt or the Pre-Raphaelites and the gentlemen were wearing something of a uniform. Except Paolo, that is. In accordance with the surviving paintings, he wore a long blue robe and he went into the battles with bow and arrow.
What I also (or perhaps most?) blame the director for is that he borrowed” from his colleague Piero Faggioni; he made a weak copy really. Poor del Monaco was met with a huge “boo” shout, so that even the walls of La Bastille were shaking. He took it very well. He knelt,raised hands to heaven and threw kissing hands to the audience. Cute.
The production is on You Tube:
And no one should miss Francesca da Rimini from the MET, with Renata Svotto and Plácido Domingo. When music says more then thousands words:
Giulietta e Romeo
The only complete recording of Giulietta e Romeo (GOP 66352) known to me was made in 1955 in Milan. The leading roles were sung by Annamaria Rovere, a fine soprano with a voice typical for the time, and Angelo Lo Forese, who I find slightly irritating. Because of the opera itself, but also because of the phenomenal Renato Capecchi as Tebaldo, an absolute must for any opera lover.
An aria from the opera is also on Jonas Kaufmann’s ‘Verismo’ CD:
Il Bacio (GOP 66351) had its very first performance in 1954 in Milan (Zandonai had died in 1944, leaving the opera unfinished). Fortunately for us, the performance was recorded by RAI and put on CD. The publisher apologises for the absence of the libretto, but there is no synopsis either, so one can only guess at the opera’s content. No problem, the music is captivating enough, and it is beautifully sung by, among others, Lina Pagliughi in the role of Mirta.