Metropolitan Opera Live in HD: 'Francesca da Rimini' is schmaltz in grand style
NEW YORK -- Mark Delavan knocks over a table and swings his ax. "Francesca da Rimini" is not subtle.
Riccardo Zandonai's most well-known composition has returned to the Metropolitan Opera after a 27-year absence, a schmaltzy verismo melodrama with charged music and enough family turmoil to fill several soap opera seasons.
The revival -- which can be seen in a live HD simulcast Saturday at noon at Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center in Great Barrington, Beacon Cinema in Pittsfield, and Clark Art Institute in Williamstown -- showcases Eva-Maria Westbroek's dramatic soprano and fine acting as Francesca unsuccessfully tries to navigate a love quadrangle, an entertaining performance of a genre that was fading even at the time Zandonai was creating the work.
Lacking a musically memorable aria or ensemble, "Francesca" has not been part of the core repertory. Still, Zandonai's score, with a libretto by music publisher Tito Ricordi, makes for an enjoyable evening.
Based on a play by Gabriele d'Annunzio that was inspired by Dante's "Inferno" and set in 14th-century Ravenna and Rimini, "Francesca" premiered in 1914. (Why didn't the Met wait another year and bring it back for the 100th anniversary?)
Its first U.S. performance was at the Met in 1916, but after 1918 it disappeared until Piero Faggioni's larger-than-life staging in 1984 that starred Renata Scotto, Placido Domingo and Cornell MacNeil under James Levine's frenetic baton. Two years later, the Met brought it back with the blustery tenor Ermanno Mauro, and then "Francesca" vanished again until now.
Francesca, part of a wealthy Polentani family, falls in love with the dashing Paolo of the wealthy Malatesta family -- even before they speak to each other -- but for political reasons she is forced to marry his deformed, cruel brother Giovanni, who is known as Gionciotto and walks with a limp. Paolo longs for Francesca even after the wedding. Francesca is then pursued by their younger brother, Malatestino, who lost an eye during a battle between the Guelphs and Ghibellines. Spurned by Francesca, Malatestino tells Giovanni of Paolo's love for his wife, and Giovanni kills both Francesca and Paolo.
Scotto gave an over-the-top, "demented" diva performance a quarter-century ago, when her voice was past its prime, but she created a role with an unrelenting force of personality. Westbroek, who made her Met debut as Sieglinde in Wagner's "Die Walkuere" two years ago, gives a more rounded portrayal.
She shows more of Francesca's vulnerability in the softer, lyrical moments, yet her voice has enough heft to accurately cut through the swelling orchestration.
Marcello Giordani struggles at the start as Paolo, sounding strained and constricted when the second act begins. But when he climbs the tower of Ezio Frigerio's huge set -- which looks more Industrial Revolution than early Renaissance -- Giordani's tenor gains luster. While his voice's color fades in the softer passages and he lacks Domingo's suave manner, it is a far better performance than Giordani's Aeneas in Berlioz's "Les Troyens" in December, when he withdrew in the middle of the run and retired the role from his repertory.
Delavan's booming baritone is imposing in the somewhat cartoonish role of Gionciotto; he drops the diabolic beard that MacNeil wore when the production was new. Robert Brubaker has a bright tenor as Malatestino, and Ginger Costa-Jackson displays a sweet voice and demeanor as Francesca's slave Smaragdi.
Marco Armiliato doesn't whip the orchestra into a frenzy, as Levine did, but still leads a driven performance that brings life to a score that at times harkens to Puccini.
David Kneuss directed, adhering pretty much to the original staging that he assisted on 29 years ago.
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