Dante’s Inferno Inspires Exciting Zandonai Opera

Zandonai, Francesca da Rimini: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera, New York/Marco Armilliato (conductor). Transmitted live from New York to Barbican Cinema One, London. 16.03.2013 (CC)

Francesca: Eva-Maria Westbroek
Paolo Il Bello: Marcello Giordani
Malatestino: Robert Brubaker
Gianciotto: Marl Delevan
Smaragdi: Ginger Costa-Jackson
Ostasio: Philip Horst
Samaritina: Dina Kuznetsova
Berlingerio: Stephen Gaertner

Producer: Piero Faggioni
Set Designer: Ezio Frigiero
Costume Designer: Franca Squarciapino
Lighting: Gil Wechsler

Chances to experience Zandonai’s Francesca are few and far between. Inspired by the Fifth Canto of Dante’s Inferno, Zandonai’s tale of the characteristic Italian verismo elements of love, pure lust, betrayal and (of course) tragic death is a heady mix. It was a privilege to see it in this Met simulcast; one can only hope Covent Garden will get the hint and stage it in the future themselves.

This Met production was first seen in 1984, with Mirella Freni and Placido Domingo (there is a DVD available); and this present run is the first there since 1986. Many have found influences galore in the score: Impressionism, Puccini, Richard Strauss and even Wagner. For soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, though, in interview on the big screen, the score is pure Zandonai. Caught up in the excitement of it all, she was clearly selling the opera, though in the event, it did not need much selling at all. It is a remarkable piece. Yes, Puccini is the easiest influence to spot, in the overarching lyricism, long melodies and offstage choruses; Zandonai was, of course, of the first post-Puccini generation of composers. Verismo Francesca is, through and through; second rate verismo (the standard charge against it), it is not. The music, under Marco Armilliato’s expert direction, emerged fresh as a daisy. Textures were frequently full, but never over-blown. Evocations of Spring resounded as effectively as the murderous darkness of the end.

The story is set in early fourteenth century Italy, initially in Ravenna, then in Rimini. The battles of the Ghibelines and the Guelphs are in full swing. Piero Faggioni, the producer here, sets the scene in terms of pre-Raphaelite colours and costumes. Costumes move from the wispy, transparent veils of the first act through dark reds for the bloody battle scene through to darker colours for the tragic finale, as Franca Squarciapino explained in another of the interval interviews. Ezio Frigiero’s sets are as opulent, atmospheric and traditional as we have come to expect from the Met.

The first act relay was beset with problems of drop-outs, which seemed to come in bunches, so just as one had fully submerged oneself in Zandonai’s flow, along came another unexpected gap. It was a shame (later acts were largely unaffected) as it really was a privilege to hear this score. There were three intermissions. Perhaps Acts Two and Three could have been performed with a short break in between – they last 35 and 28 minutes respectively?

My previous experience of Eva-Maria Westbroek in live opera was in the title role of Turnage’s Anna Nicole at the Royal Opera. I have also come across her on disc as Sieglinde, a role she has recorded a number of times already (the one I heard was the Weigle on Oehms Classics) and in which she excels. Here, in verismo, she was actually more impressive than in either. She really seemed inside the role, her voice full of the strength the role requires, able to take on a truly imperious tone when required; at others, able to project the vulnerable side of her character. As Paolo Il Bello, Sicilian tenor Marcello Giordani was in fine, and ardent, vocal form (he gave a good Cavaradossi at the Royal Opera back in 2009 that I reported on). The love between the two characters was eminently believable, making the opera’s close all the more heartbreaking.

Francesca has been tricked into marrying the cruel, and deformed, Giovanni Malatesta (also known as Gianciotto). It is Gianciotto who performs the final stabbings of Francesca and Paolo. Bass-baritone Mark Delavan, a Met regular, was tremendous in the role, fully believable as one of the two incarnations of evil, his full voice and immaculate diction a joy. Perhaps even more evil, though, was Robert Brubaker. Brubaker is possibly most famous for his assumption of Mime under Levine at the Met, and, on present evidence, one can easily imagine him sliming his way through the role with ease. As with the rest of the cast, his vocal contribution was faultless.

The other singers were all uniformly excellent, from the madrigal-like ensembles for the ladies-in-waiting of the first act to the simply amazing, smouldering mezzo of Ginger Costa-Jackson’s Smaragdi (Francesca’s slave). Incidentally, the listing handed out on the photocopied A4 piece of paper that passes for a programme at these simulcasts only listed the four major characters. Costa-Jackson’s stage presence was remarkable; with a weaker Francesca, there would have been a definite possibility of upstaging the principal.

It was a remarkable experience. Do try to hear this opera, or preferably see it in DVD form – unless you happen to be in New York where there are further performances on March 19 and 22.

Colin Clarke