Escalation of passions in Berlin: Francesca da Rimini from Zandonai

Riccardo Zandonai (1883–1942) : Francesca da Rimini, a tragedy in four acts. Sara Jakubiak (Francesca), Jonathan Tetelman (Paolo il Bello), Ivan Inverardi (Giovanni Schancato, named Gianciotto), Charles Workman (Malatestino dal Occhio), Alexandra Hutton (Samaritana), Samuel Dale Johnson (Ostasio), Michot Marrero (Biancofiore ) ), Amir Elmadfa (Smaragdi) and others. Chorus and orchestra of the German Opera in Berlin, conducted by Carlo Rizzi. 2021. Notice and synopsis in English and German. Subtitles in Italian, English, German, French, Japanese and Korean. 140.00. DVD Naxos 2.110711. Also available on Blu-ray.

Curious is the fate of Riccardo Zandonai, whose posterity eventually preserved from a number of operas written by him between 1906 and 1940 (a little fifteen) only this Francesca da Rimini created with great success at the Teatro Regio in Turin on 19 February 1914, a triumph confirmed by a revival in Covent Garden less than six months later. The work traveled in Europe before World War II (in Brussels in 1923), was revived several times in Italy and performed in the United States. However, despite its qualities, it remains relatively unregistered in the repertoire of lyric houses. On the other hand, at the videographic level Francesca da Rimini so far well served in the April 1984 version of Metropolitan of New York with Renata Scotto in a State of Grace and Plácido Domingo in two lead roles directed by James Levine (DG) or as 2004 filmed at the Macerata Festival with Daniela Dessie and Fabio Armiliato directed by Mauricio Barbarini (Arthouse). These two productions, with sets and lavish costumes from the time of the action (Renaissance), were distributed at a high level, but the Met somewhat lacked a rather average image quality. These two testimonies, however, are undeniable vocal and stage successes.

Here is another version, recent as it proposes a production at the Deutsche Oper Berlin in March 2021 by Christoph Loy, which places the action in a sober modern context, devoid of the sumptuous splendor of New York or Macerata, with black male suits (Klaus Bruns), in unlike the heroine in alternating colors, and the whiteness of the dresses of her maids. A visual effect that focuses the viewer on the tragedy unfolding before their eyes, in a setting that does not change for four acts: a huge wall covered with floral wallpaper (which you would not want to decorate your house-soi), a large shutter is punched in the middle, which rises as necessary to accommodate one or another main scene (battle, meal, lovemaking, murder of two lovers). This other part of the plateau, raised by three steps, has large windows, the horizons of which will differ according to the development of the drama.

Booklet Francesca da Rimini signed by the Milanese publisher Tito Ricordi (1865-1933). It is taken from the tragedy of the same name in verse by Gabriele d’Annunzio (1863-1938), dated 1901 and inspired by an episode from Canto V The Divine Comedy Dante. The argument is easily summarized. For political reasons, the lord of the city of Ravenna marries his daughter Francesca to Giovanni Malatesta, who was named Gianciotto lo Shancato (“the lame one”) because of his physical deformity. But the marriage contract was concluded by proxy with Paolo, Gianciotto’s brother. Francesca believes that he is her real fiance, the love between her and Paolo is immediate. After her marriage, a frustrated Francesca now lives in Rimini with the Malatestas. A battle ensues, during which Paolo performs feats and sees the young woman for the first time; he assures her that he did not know about the bidding organized for the marriage. During the conflict, the third brother, Malatestino, loses an eye. The latter lusts after his daughter-in-law and will prove bloodthirsty, brutally executing the prisoner. He discovers a secret romance between Francesca and Paolo and reveals it to Gianciotto. The latter prepares a trap: he pretends to be absent, discovers the lovers together in the middle of the night and kills them both.

On this highly tragic basis, which is called the Italian “Tristan” because of the obvious references to the love of Lancelot and Queen Guinevere (the majestic Act III is impregnated with this), Zandonai composed music inspired, effective, bright, intoxicating and constantly in suspense. The song is built in the vocal range of the great Italian tradition, but with a departure from verismo and taking into account French harmonic subtleties, in particular Debussy. The music captivates from beginning to end and captivates the listener with its dynamics and lyrical breadth. In this respect, Christophe Loy’s production is worthy of this tragic theme, because it crystallizes in the center of action, full of movement, all-consuming passion that unites two lovers in a context of turmoil and violence. The aforementioned restraint of décor and costumes, supported by bright light, emphasizes the tension that is only growing and gives the impeccable stage performance the most wonderful theatrical dimension.

The voice composition is excellent. Soprano Sara Jakubiak, of Polish and German descent, hails from Michigan and studied at Cleveland and Yale. She especially distinguished herself with Richard Strauss, Korngold, Verdi, Prokofiev or Weber. Her voluptuous physical presence is a true tragic actress; she benefits from a magnificent voice, rich and full, with endless colors, with lively and sharp high notes. She’s really a master at playing Francesca, she’s the one with the part that seems to be written for her. Beside her, the three Malatesta brothers match this legendary heroine. Chile-born tenor Johatan Tetelman is also great. We have no difficulty believing in the passion that electrifies two lovers, as they are authentic in their mutuality, including in the semi-erotic scene that unites them. In the third act, a quarter of an hour, during which their love is specifically revealed (Paolo, dateme pace!) is a great moment of strong lyrical emotion. The “lame” Gianciotto, the deceived husband, is the baritone Ivan Inverardi, of imposing physique, rude in his feelings, but dangerous and implacable in his furious anger. The role of the “one-eyed” Malatestino was entrusted to the American tenor Charles Workman; pathetic and bloodthirsty, he cruelly rejoices in the marital misfortunes of his brothers and daughter-in-law and feasts on them, cunning and inspired by the spirit of revenge after being rejected by Francesca. These superb singers create between them a morbid universe of absolute psychological darkness, in a vocal breadth that sometimes trembles and, with amazing realism, translates the ascending sweep of the tragedy to its final outcome. It is very beautiful and uplifting.

Everything else on the set is top notch, from Francesca’s surroundings, which bring some desired feminine touch, like the image of Samaritan (soprano Alexandra Hutton), the sister of the heroine, who in the first act is driven by a premonition of the future of an arranged marriage or the future of Biancofiore (soprano Michot Marrero), confidante of Francesca’s emotions. The women’s choirs of the Deutsche Oper Berlin are simply wonderful. As for the phalanx of the German opera house, it is led by Carlo Rizzi in excellent shape. He eloquently emphasizes all the orchestral nuances, doses the richness and emotional upsurge, like the tenderness of the phases of love. He contributes greatly to the success of this evening, which vibrates with passion, rage and blood, and is beautifully shot by Goltz Filenius, both in terms of wide shots and close-ups.

Overall rating: 9.5

John Lacroix

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