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Riccardo ZANDONAI (1883-1944)
Francesca da Rimini - Opera in four Acts after Gabriele D'Annunzio (1913) [133:26]
Christina Vasileva (soprano) - Francesca da Rimini
Martin Mühle (tenor) - Paolo il bello
Juan Orozco (baritone) - Gianciotto
Adriano Graziani (tenor) - Malatestino
Kim-Lillian Strebel (soprano) - Garsenda
Bénédicte Tauran (soprano) - Biancofiore
Sally Wilson (mezzo) - Adonella (Donella)
Marija Jokovic (mezzo)- Altichiara
Viktória Mester (mezzo) - Samaritana, Smaragdi
Levente Molnár (baritone) - Torrigiano, Ostasio
Aaron Judisch (tenor) - Ser Toldo
Alejandra Lárraga Schleske (baritone) - Fahrender Sänger
Se Hun Jin - Schütze, Gefangener
Freiburger Kammerchor, Opern und Extrachor des Theater Freiburg, Vokalensemble der Hochschule für Musik Freiburg, Philharmonisches Orchester Freiburg/Fabrice Bollon
rec. Konzerthaus Freiburg, Rolf Böhme Saal, Freiburg Germany, 18-23 July 2013
CPO 777960-2 [57:32 + 75:54]

This was the first time I had listened to Riccardo Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini. Zandonai belongs to that unlucky group of artists feted in their lifetimes and whose reputation struggles to live on after them. What reputation Zandonai has rests almost entirely upon this work. By the time of his death in 1944 he had written some thirteen operas. Look in the record catalogue today and apart from a few - mainly archival - versions of this opera only two others seem to have been recorded at all; I cavalieri di Ekebù and Conchita and again in broadcast/historical versions. Yet Zandonai was the composer allegedly favoured by Puccini to complete Turandot - a proposal vetoed by Tonio Puccini on the grounds - again allegedly - that Zandonai's fame might eclipse that of the dead Puccini.

I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed this work. An analogy might be of the kind of chunky thriller you take to read on a beach holiday. It might not be literature of the highest order, but it's a compelling page-turner that holds your interest from first to breathless last. Zandonai seems to have hit just about the perfect scale for the work too; four acts lasting a total of two hours each with a distinct mood and character that build to exciting set-piece climaxes. Zandonai was just 30 when he was commissioned by Ricordi to write the opera. The libretto was written by Tito Riccordi after Gabriele D'Annunzio's scandalous 1901 drama. In turn this was an elaboration of the few verses in Dante's Divine Comedy where the fated lovers, Francesca and Paolo, are encountered in one of the outer circles of Hell. Francesca has fascinated several Romantic composers from Tchaikovsky and Arthur Foote - in symphonic poem form - and Rachmaninov in a one-act opera first performed in 1906. Rachmaninov uses a compact two tableaux form framed by a prologue and epilogue in Hell but in essence the narrative is similar. Ricordi/Zandonai eschew the supernatural sequence and plunge the listener straight into the action.

Very briefly the narrative is as follows; Act I - Francesca da Rimini (soprano) is tricked into marrying the deformed Giovanni Malatesta (baritone) when his brother Paolo (the beautiful) (tenor) masquerades as his older brother. Act II - The Malatesta family, including another scheming brother Malatestino (tenor) have to defend their castle against the feuding Ghibellines. Paolo protests to Francesca that he too was tricked into the ruse before rushing off to defend the castle. Malatestino is brought in from the battle injured having lost an eye. Act III - Francesca and her handmaids are passing the time reading the Grail Romances - specifically the episode of the forbidden love between Lancelot and Queen Guinevere. Paolo enters, declares his love and she begs him not to tempt her. In a diversion she turns again to the story but it opens at the point where Guinevere and Lancelot kiss - as do Francesca and Paolo. Act IV - Malatestino declares his love also for Francesca and suggests she kill her husband - and he threatens to reveal his knowledge of the love between Paolo and her which he ultimately does when questioned by Giovanni. Francesca is sleeping only to be awoken by Paolo. As they embrace Giovanni enters intending to kill his brother, Francesca steps between them and is impaled on Giovanni sword, he then stabs Paolo as the curtain falls.

What the bare bones of this plot outline don't reveal is the skill with which Ricordi/Zandonai mix solos, small ensembles, full chorus and orchestral interludes. At the time of the work's creation verismo was still the dominant style in Italian opera. Zandonai follows this to a substantial degree with musical lines following the shapes and rhythms of the natural speech. The cast of characters rather removes the work from pure verismo concerned as it was with the lives of 'ordinary' folk in 'ordinary' situations but across the operatic world the age of the Renaissance seems to have spawned a host of operatic plots from Korngold's Violanta (a very similar narrative dating from 1914) to Schreker's Die Gezeichneten or even Goldschmidt's much later Beatrice Cenci.

I rather like the concept of a lover's quadrangle too - the addition of the Malatestino brother brings to both the plot and the palette of voices an interesting additional variation - especially when he is singing in the same range as his brother. It stops it being just a 'good' tenor, 'villain' baritone and 'wronged' soprano. That said, this is very much Francesca's opera - she is present onstage for the majority of the work and Zandonai makes substantial acting and vocal demands on her. She has to sing everything from passionate duets to fragile prayers.

Which brings me all importantly to this specific performance. As mentioned, I have no other frame of reference against which to judge but this strikes me as a splendid performance and recording in every respect. Leading this roll-call of excellence is Bulgarian-born soprano Christina Vasileva. Vasileva has been a member of the Freiburg company since 2011 and she is a tremendous asset. This is a role that demands a dramatic soprano and this is exactly what we are given here. As required she can cover the required wide range of vocal and acting from hushed simplicity to stand-and-deliver power with ever shade of vocal colour in between.

As an aside - an undoubted weakness in the opera's structure is Francesca who is the only character who goes on any kind of journey through the course of the work. The three brothers stick true to their essential stereotypes and all the other roles simply act as functional plot developers. Having said that the three brothers lack much in the way of three-dimensionality it has to noted that the singers in these roles are powerful, distinctive and provide strong foils to Vasileva. Love-interest Paolo is sung by tenor Martin Mühle. He might not have the most sheerly beautiful voice but he delivers ardent committed singing that matches Vasileva at all the crucial moments. Likewise both Juan Orozco as Giacomo the jealous husband and Adriano Graziani as the scheming Malatestino make the most of their more limited roles. In fact the scene in the final act where Malatestino taunts Giacomo with the revelation of Paulo midnight trysts with Francesca is thrilling.

Backing up all of the principals are very good secondary role singers as well as chorus work that is well judged and effective both in conception and execution. The list of solo parts shows that Zandonai wrote for a large cast of primary and secondary roles and a particular strength of this set is the quality of the performances across the cast. I liked particularly the singing of the roles of Francesca's handmaids who are given several opportunities to shine in their own right as well as providing the expected foil for her character. Zandonai uses plenty of instrumental colour too - the full score can be viewed at IMSLP - with interesting touches of 'historical' colour including an onstage instrumental group which includes a viola pomposa (basically a 4-string viola with a higher 5th string tuned like the violin's E string) and lute. All of these effects are extremely well played by Freiburg orchestra and equally well caught by the CPO engineers. The work of the latter team is especially noteworthy since this would seem to have been recorded at a series of live performances - the very occasional ghostly cough can be heard, but there is no audience applause. Aside from this very slight extraneous noise there are none of the usual problems that can diminish the impact of live opera; there is little or no stage noise, no issues with voices moving away from microphones and no apparent issues of vocal fatigue. Better still, the balance between pit and stage is effectively and convincingly managed and the orchestra is recorded with an attractive bloom. Conductor Fabrice Bollon has been music director of the Freiburg Opera since 2008 and clearly he has built the house into an impressive musical unit. He conducts this opera with a sure and certain sense of the flow of the drama; climaxes are well judged and the entire piece has exactly the right ebb and flow. I see that other CPO recordings are Cilea's L'Arlesiana with Goldmark's Die Königin von Saba due a Spring 2016 release. On the strength of this release I would be interested to hear both of those recordings.

As mentioned, the orchestral score can be viewed online which I have not followed from start to end. I believe that this is a complete and uncut version of the score but I do not know if this is definitely the case or if earlier recordings did impose any cuts. In the slim liner booklet - in German and English only - CPO provide a short description of the work's genesis and a synopsis as well as the complete libretto in the original Italian and English. Usefully, they include many of the stage directions that add a certain grand guignol drama to proceedings. The closing - rather swift dénouement - is described thus; "Giovanni... draws his sword, and rushes towards Paolo with a terrible impetus. In a flash Francesca throws herself between the two, but since her husband has put his entire weight into the blow and cannot stay it, the blade runs through her chest....[she] seals her dying lips with [Paolo's] lips. Wild with grief and rage, he deals another mortal blow to his brother's side. The two lovers continue to embrace, they do not utter a cry, joined together they fall to the ground." This is such a wonderfully florid description that I doubt any modern staging could really embrace the melodrama it demands.

Latterday critical reception of the work seems mixed at best. Opera Today reviewing a version at the Met rather sniffily characterised the piece as "a one-act pot-boiler buried in a four act sarcophagus." I must admit I do not hear the work like that at all. Agreed that Zandonai seems unable to produce a stream of memorable melody in the way that some of his exact contemporaries could but once one accepts that works that are not out of the very top drawer can still be of considerable value and give great enjoyment then this is well worth a listen. Taking other reviews of previous recordings at face value - I must repeat this is my first and only encounter with this work - it would seem that this new recording is an exceptionally strong contender for being best of the current available versions. An excellent introduction to the gaudy and glorious world of Zandonai's penny-marvellous.

Nick Barnard



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