Riccardo Zandonai was once considered Puccini’s successor. He wrote about thirteen operas, of which actually only Conchita (1911), Francesca da Rimini (1914) and Giulietta e Romeo (1921) were ever really successful. Nowadays, they are seldom performed and the average opera lover gets no further than Francesca da Rimini. A pity, because his operas are a pure pleasure to listen to.
Francesca da Rimini
Francesca da Polenta (1255 -1285), better known as Francesca da Rimini was a contemporary of Dante Alighieri, who “granted” her a place in his ‘ La Divina Commedia’, but in the fifth circle. Sad, because she did not deserve that and she must surely get a pardon.
The story: to seal the peace between the houses of da Polenta and Malatesta, Francesca must marry the eldest of the Malatesta brothers, Giovanni (Gianciotto). However, he is so hideous that the chances of her saying “no” are extremely high. To fool her, she is introduced to his younger brother, Paolo il Bello. Francesca immediately falls for the beautiful Paolo and
he too feels an all-consuming love at first sight.
The reality is gruesome: Francesca wakes up as Gianciotto’s wife. And to complicate matters further, the youngest of the Malatesta brothers, Maletestino the one-eyed, also falls in love with her.
Francesca rejects him, after which he swears revenge. He does not have to wait long: he discovers that Francesca and Paolo are lovers, reveals this to Gianciotto, after which both lovers are killed.
Romance at its finest, no wonder it was an inspiration for many a painter and tone poet, but literature was not left behind either. Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863 – 1938) wrote a beautiful play about it (a fun fact: the leading role was played by none other than Eleonore Duse, perhaps the greatest Italian actress ever), which was adapted for an opera by Riccardo Zandonai in 1914.
Zandonai was a pupil of Mascagni and a true verismo adept, but at the same time he was also a Wagnerian. He was also a great admirer of Debussy and Strauss, and you can hear all this in his music. The opera is sultry, sensual, but also extraordinarily lyrical.
The leading role requires not only a big, dramatic voice with plenty of lyricism (I call Francesca Isolde’s little sister), but also the ability to shape the needed all-consuming passion. The greatest Francesca’s were therefore the singers who dared to go beyond “just” singing: Magda Olivero, Raina Kabaivanska, Renata Scotto and Nelly Miriciou.
On 31 January 2011 Francesca da Rimini was performed for the first time in Paris, at the Opéra Bastille. The superb cast led by Svetla Vassileva and Roberto Alagna certainly lived up to the high expectations. Director Giancarlo del Monaco, though, had to put up with a deluge of boos.