Francesca da Rimini, Holland Park Opera, August 2010

When I first heard an excerpt from this opera I was entranced, and wondered why, at that time, there seemed to be no complete recording. The resounding brass in Act II followed by the heroic sound of the lovers Francesca and Paolo was riveting, and I’m delighted Holland Park has given us this opportunity of witnessing the whole thing on stage.

Francesca and Paolo, all images OHP/ Fritz Curzon

The composer, Riccardo Zandonai produced most of his compositions in the early twentieth century, this one in 1914 to a libretto by Tito Ricordi, closely based on the play Francesca da Rimini by Gabriele d’Annunzio. The real Francesca was a contemporary of Dante, and appears in his Inferno. The story is essentially that Francesca is to marry one of the Malatesta brothers, the lame Gianciotto. But she is first introduced to his brother Paolo, the beautiful, whom she believes to be her future husband, and they fall instantly in love. The third brother, Malatestino, the one-eyed, is obsessed with her and jealous of both his other brothers. He eventually realises she and Paolo are in love so he upsets the entire apple cart, leading to their death at the hands of Gianciotto.

Gianciotto and Malatestino

As Paolo, Julian Gavin sang with suitably amorous force, reminding me of his excellent Cavaradossi at the ENO recently. Jeffrey Black gave us a powerfully sung Gianciotto, and Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, whom I saw here last year as Tichon in Katya, was a convincing Malatestino. Cheryl Barker sang well as Francesca, though her acting was a bit wooden, but more on that when I deal with the direction. Anna Leese also did extremely well as Biancofiore, one of Francesca’s friends. From the pit came wonderful sounds, and the orchestra was conducted with great enthusiasm by Phillip Thomas.

There were two problems. Despite good designs by Jamie Vartan, and excellent lighting by Mark Jonathan, the direction by Martin Lloyd-Evans was weak. There was no coherence to the actions of the chorus, and Francesca seemed to adopt similar attitudes to all three men around her. In Act II she lets out a huge sound after apparently seeing Malatestino wounded, but she, like the chorus, is facing the audience and gives no indication of seeing anything special. The poor acting here must be laid partly at the foot of the director because I saw Cheryl Barker portray a wonderfully ghostly Miss Jessel in the ENO’s Turn of the Screw less than a year ago, and give a fine performance of the main role in The Makropulos Case in 2006. Those are rather odd roles of course, and as a young woman of flesh and blood I would have preferred to see a bit more life.

Paolo dies in her arms

The other problem is this opera itself. Zandonai was a very talented composer, whom Puccini favoured for completing Turandot, though his son Tonio vetoed the choice and it went to Alfano. In this opera there is no release from the tension in the music, so what ought to be wonderful moments are lost in the overall fabric, and there is no clear focus. Add to that a rather weak libretto by Ricordi, and it is understandable why the opera is not heard often. Nevertheless I very much applaud Opera Holland Park for putting it on, and am delighted to have seen it.

Performances continue until August 13 — for further information click here.

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