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Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943) Francesca da Rimini – opera in two scenes with prologue and epilogue (1906) [64:46]
The Shade of Virgil: Gennady Bezzubenkov (bass)
Dante: Evgeny Akimov (tenor)
Lanceotto: Sergey Murzaev (baritone)
Publio: Davide Damiani (baritone)
Francesca: Svetla Vassileva (soprano)
Paolo: Misha Didyk (tenor)
BBC Singers/Stephen Betteridge
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Gianandrea Noseda
rec. Studio 7 BBC Broadcasting House, Manchester, 13, 15 May 2007. DDD
CHANDOS CHAN10442 [64:46]
Experience Classicsonline

 “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”.

Unfortunately “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 his lines! 

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.

Rachmaninov’s 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 here.

Bezzubenkov and 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.

Ian Bailey



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