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
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.
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