Francesca da Rimini returned to the Met Opera stage Monday night after nearly 30 years in limbo, and if ever an opera seemed made for the movies, Riccardo Zandonai's treatment of Francesca's ill-fated love affair would be a top candidate.
Fortunately, it's a production that movie audiences around the world will get a chance to see on March 16 when the Met presents its plush 1984 staging as part of its Live in HD series in some 1,900 theaters in 64 countries.
Francesca da Rimini is based on a true story, chronicled in Dante's Inferno and the source of several plays, operas, and symphonies. It centers on the young woman of the title, nee Francesca Polenta of Ravenna, wed to Giovanni Malatesta, elder of two brothers from Rimini and nicknamed "the lame," in a politically arranged marriage. Francesca and the younger brother, Paolo, called "the handsome," fell in love and began an affair while reading the tale of Lancelot. They were later killed by Giovanni in a jealous rage.
The setting for the opera is the early 1300's during the war between the Guelphs and Ghibellines, though the real story took place some years earlier and the fighting by that time was an internecine conflict among the victorious Guelphs.
Zandonai, once considered destined to be the next Puccini, wrote his own libretto based on a play by Gabriele d'Annunzio that added a third lustful Malatesta brother and invented a plot twist by which Francesca was tricked into believing that the dashing Paolo was her intended husband.
In suggesting that the opera was made for the movies, it is only because its sweeping, melodic score could serve as a soundtrack for an epic film. The music itself indicates all the romance of ill-fated love and the surging drama of battle. There are few arias or other traditional operatic devices, and though the lovers have some touching duets, most of the emotion and drama is carried forward by the Met orchestra, under Marco Armiliato's able baton, and especially a beautiful cello solo by Jerry Grossman.
Eva-Maria Westbroek's strong and powerful voice conveys all the passion and pathos of Francesca's plight. Marcello Giordani is better in some passages than others as Paolo, but Mark Delavan's resonant baritone is full of menace and anger as Giovanni. Ginger Costa-Jackson adds a nice turn as Smaragdi, Francesca's servant.
The production itself is sumptuous to look at, though the opening act courtyard in Ravenna looks more like it belongs to an Art Deco country house in Kent than a castle on the Adriatic coast circa 1300. The costumes are modeled on Pre-Raphaelite paintings with the chorus of girls all garlanded in flowers and draped in flowing gowns.
The doomed love, however, is classic. Dante, who knew Francesca and the Polenta family well (he spent his last years in Ravenna as a guest of Francesca's nephew), tells her story at the end of Canto V of the Inferno. After seeing Francesca and Paolo sweep by in the second circle of Hell, he tells her: "Francesca, what you suffer here/ melts me to tears of pity and of pain." And he falls into a swoon.
If Zandonai's opera does not evoke many swoons of even tears, the Met's revival gives opera fans a rare opportunity to see and hear what was the cutting edge of the musical world 100 years ago.