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Riccardo ZANDONAI (1883-1944)
Francesca da Rimini (1914)
Tragedy in four acts. Libretto by Tito Ricordi, based on the play by Gabriele d’Annunzio
Daniela Dessi – Francesca; Fabio Armiliato – Paolo ‘il bello’; Giacinta Nicotra – Samaritana; Alberto Mastromarino – Giovanni ‘lo sciancato’ (Gianciotto); Giuseppe Altomare – Ostasio; Rosella Bevacqua – Garsenda; Sabrina Modena – Adonella; Francesca Rinaldi – Altichiara; Roberta Canzian – Biancofiore; Angela Masi – La sciava Smaragdi; Ludovit Ludha – Malatestino Dall’Occhio; Fancesco Zingariello – Ser Toldo Berardengo; Domenico Colaianni – Il giullare;; Alessandro Pucci – Il balestriere; Michelangelo Brecciaroli – Un prigioniero; Orchestra Filarmonica Marchigiana, Coro Lirico Marchigiano ‘V. Bellini’/Maurizio Barbacini
Stage Direction: Set Design; Costumes and Lighting Design: Massimo Gasparon
rec. live, Sferisterio Opera Festival, Macerata. 2004
Directed for TV and Video by Michelangelo Rossi
Sound Format: PCM Stereo, DD 5.1, DTS 5.1; Picture Format: 4:3 Letterbox
ARTHAUS 101363 [137:00]


Experience Classicsonline

Riccardo Zandonai is one of those Italian opera composers in the wake of Puccini who verges on the border of obscurity but some of his works occasionally appear, at least in Italy. Though he wrote a number of operas it is primarily Francesca da Rimini that is played and it is generally regarded as his best work. At Värmlandsoperan in Karlstad, Sweden I cavaliere di Ekebu was played more than ten years ago. This opera, premiered at La Scala in 1925 under Toscanini, is based on the highly popular novel Gösta Berling’s Saga by Swedish Nobel Prize Winner Selma Lagerlöf and the events take place in the Province of Värmland, thus the connection. I primarily knew Zandonai’s music from a series of 78rpm sides that were set down in 1927 and 1928 in connection with the first Swedish production of the opera in Stockholm to coincide with Ms Lagerlöf’s 70th birthday. It was recorded more than 30 years ago with Fiorenza Cosotto in the central role as the Commander and it seems that also Fedora Barbieri also recorded it. Also Conchita has been set down and Francesca da Rimini has had several recordings, one with Raina Kabaivanska as Francesca. A search on Operabase during the period 2008 – 2011 gave only one hit for Zandonai: a production of Francesca da Rimini in Trieste in late 2008 with Daniela Dessi and Fabio Armiliato in the leading roles as on the DVDs under review from Macerata.

The opera is based on the renowned Gabriele d’Annunzio’s long verse drama from 1901, which in its turn harked back on Dante and, to some extent, Boccaccio. The libretto for the opera was however written by publisher Tito Ricordi, who bought the rights from the poet for a large sum of money but had to do the heavy job of compressing and simplifying the drama to dimensions that were possible to handle and set to music. He discarded about one fourth altogether and cut out bombasts that were of little avail. The end product was a libretto that, though not free from longueurs, inspired the composer to some highly dramatic scenes as well as a couple of love scenes that are truly beautiful and have some Puccinian atmosphere about them though they lack the melting sweetness of the old master. Zandonai, like Puccini, also seems to be especially inspired by the female voices, not only writing soaring solo cantilenas but atmospheric ensembles and choruses for women. Harmonically the one-time Mascagni pupil is lavishly late romantic, not without some biting dissonant seasoning, something that was further developed in I cavalieri di Ekebu. His instrumentation is possibly his strongest point: varied and colourful.

The story of Francesca da Rimini, which also inspired Tchaikovsky to write his symphonic fantasia Op. 22, takes place in Ravenna and Rimini. Guido, the ruler of Ravenna, has arranged a marriage between his daughter Francesca and the crippled Gianciotto Malatesta. In order not to discourage her she is fooled to believe that she is to marry Gianciotto’s brother, Paolo ‘il bello’. When Francesca sees him she falls at once in love. Her sister Samaritana suspects the truth and advises her not to marry but Francesca insists.

In act II a war is raging between two rivalling parties. Paolo is fighting bravely in a tower and Francesca has joined him. When she believes he has been wounded she takes his head in her hands. When the enemy has been dislodged Gianciotto praises Paolo’s courage and announces that he has been elected to a high position in Florence. All three drink a toast, while all the time Paolo and Francesca keep their eyes riveted upon each other. The third brother, Malatestino, is brought in, wounded in one eye.

In act III Francesca is reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere while her ladies-in-waiting are singing. Paolo, having suddenly returned, comes in. They read the story together and when they reach the point where Lancelot declares his love to Guinevere they stop reading and caress each other passionately.

The one-eyed Malatestino is also in love with Francesca and in the first scene of act IV he tries to beguile her but Francesca rejects him. When Gianciotto comes she complains of his cruelty, having just left to silence a crying prisoner. She leaves and when Malatestino returns Gianciotto rebukes him for his behaviour. Malatestino then reveals that Francesca and Paolo are in love. Gianciotto demands proof and Malatestino asks to wait until night breaks. The second scene plays at night. Francesca is in bed and Paolo comes to her. They embrace and then they hear Gianciotto’s voice outside the door. Paolo tries to escape but fails, the two men fight, Francesca throws herself between them and is being stabbed by Gianciotto who then also kills Paolo.

These cruel proceedings are carried out on the enormous out-door stage at Macerata before an audience of 4,500 people. The stage picture is dominated by a large dome, around and within which the action takes place. Up to and in the dome there are wide staircases and there is a lot of walking and running up and down these. The dome is beautifully lit and decorated and together with the lavish costume we get a fairly realistic picture of medieval upper class milieu. The outdoor circumstances invites larger-than-life acting and the video director has wisely chosen to avoid intrusive close-ups. Still there is a lot of old-fashioned outstretched arms and waving of hands to express strong feelings. In the long run this becomes rather annoying and lessens the impact of the central drama. After a rather long-winded first act with slow build-up of tension, the remaining acts are more closely knit and the unfolding of the drama – and the love story – is thrilling. Rarely do we encounter such impassioned kisses and embraces as between Francesca and Paolo, but moralists should know that this is fully legitimate since Daniela Dessi and Fabio Armiliato are real-life partners.

Vocally Armiliato is on near top form and he impresses especially through his nuanced lyric singing but also in the heroic/dramatic music even though he sometimes presses too hard. One reason is no doubt the orchestral texture, which can be very thick and impenetrable. Daniela Dessi makes an impressive reading of Francesca’s role, also finding the delicate nuances, but her tone is prone to be strident at fortissimo. Alberto Mastromarino renders Gianciotto probably more sympathetic than he really is through his warm singing, while Ludovit Ludha, visually and vocally, presents a frightening third brother. Among the many minor roles Giacinda Nicotra is an expressive but rather squally Samaritana but Angela Masi as the slave girl Smaragdi impresses greatly with her smooth, deep contralto. The sound is a bit variable as so often on outdoor recordings but in the main it works well and the production as a whole gives a more than decent picture of this relative rarity.

Göran Forsling 



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