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Francesca da Rimini
Premiere: Turin, Teatro Regio, 1914
Both a grand historical epic and a passionate romantic tragedy, Francesca da Rimini is among the most ambitious operas in the Italian repertoire. Its story is derived from a memorable and poignant (albeit brief) episode in Dante’s Inferno that is based on historical fact and has inspired adaptations in a variety of genres over the centuries. The action of the opera centers on a refined young woman from a powerful medieval Italian warrior family. Married for political reasons to the deformed Giovanni Malatesta, known as Gianciotto, she falls in love with his handsome brother, Paolo. The Italian writer Gabriele d’Annunzio created a tragic play from the legend, replete with a wealth of poetic invention, that was adapted into a libretto by music publisher Tito Ricordi, Jr. The opera’s grand scale and lofty stylistic ambitions reflect the currents of debate among artists in Italy at the time of its composition. The verismo movement of real-life dramas set among common people, so shocking and exciting two decades earlier, seemed exhausted. Puccini, the most successful composer of the day, resisted Ricordi’s efforts to make him write a “grand” Italian opera and continued to base his works on international (even American) sources and everyday characters. Ricordi eventually turned to young Riccardo Zandonai, who had written a reasonably successful opera, Conchita, on a libretto rejected by Puccini. Though Francesca da Rimini didn’t succeed in knocking Puccini out of the public’s esteem, it is a thrilling and unique score—a marvelous synthesis of French Impressionism, post-Wagnerian grandeur, and the emotional intensity of Italy’s own verismo.
Born in a northern region of Italy then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Riccardo Zandonai (1883–1944) belonged to the generation immediately following Puccini, Mascagni, and other composers of the verismo genre. Francesca remains the most popular of his dozen or so operas. A close relationship between music and text is one of the key factors that have kept his works better known in Italy than abroad. Tito Ricordi, Jr. (1865–1933), inherited the directorship of the principal Italian music publishing firm, Casa Ricordi, from his father Giulio (a close friend and associate of Verdi’s) in 1912. Francesca da Rimini was among his first projects in this position, whose success he struggled to repeat. Gabriele d’Annunzio (1863–1938), a complex figure who remains controversial today, rose to prominence as a writer in several genres, successfully assimilating the “decadent” styles of French Symbolists and British Aestheticists into Italian literature. He wrote his five-act tragedy Francesca da Rimini (1902) for the talents of his mistress, the celebrated actress Eleanora Duse. Dante Alighieri (1265–1321), the supreme poet of the Italian language and a towering figure in the history of literature, is primarily remembered for his Divine Comedy, a long poem describing a journey through the realms of the afterlife. The character of Francesca da Rimini appears among those damned in hell for sins of the flesh. She tells her story in a mere 38 lines of the poem, which formed the basis for d’Annunzio’s play.
The opera takes place in the early 14th century in the northern Italian cities of Ravenna and Rimini, during the complex internecine wars of the Ghibellines and the Guelphs, two factions who battled for centuries over control of Italy.
The score of Francesca aims beyond the brilliant set pieces that were typical of Italian opera and, at the turn of the 20th century, increasingly perceived as impediments to the form’s evolution. The beauty of the music is found in colors, textures, and moments of intense drama rather than in arias and other traditional forms. The refined ambience of a medieval Italian noble court is represented by the madrigal- like ensembles of Francesca’s ladies-in-waiting, especially in Act I. The sudden shift to the jarring sounds of battle that blaze throughout Act II are typical of the extreme contrasts in this work and aptly depict the duality of sophistication and brutality that is at the core of the drama. The two lead characters share four duets, each with its own distinct ambience. Especially the one in Act III unmistakably shows Zandonai’s admiration for the musical innovations of Debussy, Strauss, and other modernists of his day. One of the high points of the score is the ravishing cello solo at the end of Act I that accompanies the lovers’ first meeting. The fact that this crucial moment is represented by an instrumental solo rather than a standard love duet underscores how intensely Zandonai was trying to distance this work from the conventions of Italian opera. The Act IV scene between the second tenor and the baritone harnesses all the energy of the traditional operatic oath duet while blasting forth into new realms of gritty—even gruesome—realism.
Francesca da Rimini at the Met
Francesca premiered at the Met in December 1916 with Frances Alda and Giovanni Martinelli as the lovers and Pasquale Amato as Gianciotto. They all appeared in the company’s ten remaining performances of the work through 1918, after which the opera fell out of the repertory for 66 years. The current production premiered in 1984 with James Levine conducting Renata Scotto, Plácido Domingo, Cornell MacNeil, and William Lewis. Director Piero Faggioni, set designer Ezio Frigerio, and costume designer Franca Squarciapino all made their company debuts with this staging, which has not been seen at the Met since 1986.