“There is no greater sorrow than to recall times of happiness
in wretchedness; and this your teacher knows.”
Francesca de Rimini’s
famous line from the second circle of Dante’s “Inferno” clearly
inspired both Rachmaninov and his spiritual mentor Tchaikovsky
to works of great drama and passion. The older composer was
not however to live long enough to experience Rachmaninov’s
setting, although he was able to attend the younger composer’s
first attempt at an opera, “Aleko”.
“Aleko” was not a great success; even the composer ruefully
observed: “All first operas by young composers usually fail
In fact it was
during 1897, following the disastrous premiere of the First
Symphony, whilst working as second conductor at Savva Mamontov’s
private opera company, that he began work on two new operatic
ideas in tandem with Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest. One was
Richard II, which came to nothing; the other was a
theme drawn by Modest from Canto V of Dante’s “Inferno” –
the doomed love of Francesca and Paolo, their murder by Gianciotto
and subsequent consignment to the nether regions.
The project however
went on hold until 1904 when, having completed “The Miserly
Knight” (his third opera), Rachmaninov decided he needed something
to present with it as a double-bill. Working hard he originally
hoped for the great Fyodor Chaliapin - an old colleague from
the Mamontov company - to star, but eventually the honour
fell to Georgi Baklanov at the 1906 premiere. It’s not clear
incidentally whether Chaliapin pleaded a prior engagement
… or more mischievously just couldn’t be bothered to learn
After an opening
scene between Dante and Virgil (acting as his guide) the pair
of observers descend into the depths to the accompaniment
of incessant whirlwinds in the orchestra, and the doom-laden
repetitious groans of the chorus. The story then unfolds of
the lame nobleman Lanceotto – transformed from Gianciotto
- brooding in his ancestral castle, deep in preparation for
war against the enemies of the Pope, yet simultaneously racked
with suspicion. He is overwhelmingly jealous of his younger
and much more handsome brother Paolo. His wife Francesca meanwhile,
clearly drawn towards Paolo, whilst promising obedience declares
that she has no love for her husband.
In the next scene,
after we assume Lanceotto has left for battle, we discover
Paolo reading to Francesca the Arthurian tale of Lancelot
and Guinevere. It becomes ever clearer he is speaking of his
own love for Francesca. As she finally succumbs to his embrace
Lanceotto appears behind them both and stabs them to death.
The final scene then returns to Hell’s outer reaches, but
this time with the cries of the doomed lovers: “… on that
day we read no more ...” superimposed.
treatment of the idea is dramatic and in the love scene pulsating.
Noseda conjures up the hell-mouth scene most vividly, with
the aid of a very on-form BBC Philharmonic. But they are also
capable of the subtler effects too … listen to the introduction
of Lanceotto, which is marked by a wonderful malevolent, suspicious
brooding. There is a chilling mix of both torment and evil
Akimov are impressive as Virgil and Dante but I was particularly
taken with Sergey Murzaev as Lanceotto, as well as Didyk’s
splendid “ringing” Russian tenor.
The love scene
is tremendous, real surging passion this, scores flung to
one side and performers plunging into the music, totally immersed.
The taping followed a live performance at Manchester’s Bridgewater
Hall (broadcast on Radio 3), and in this section in particular
some of that live flavour (and fervour!) has carried over
into the studio.
I also recall
from the broadcast that the chorus seemed rather small and
backward in the mix, but that defect has been remedied here,
and there is no such problem of impact … although … I must
report that I did find the soloists throughout a touch too
close in the balance. Clearly the engineers had to work hard
overall to contain Noseda’s titanic outbursts at climaxes,
which make for a really thrilling effect. His experience at
the Maryinsky, and elsewhere in the opera house, shines through
at such moments … a true “man of the theatre”.
There have been
other versions of this score on disc, but I would have to
nominate this issue as my current favourite. Noseda is definitely
a man to watch.