Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini: a rarity whose long-overdue time has come

The first thing one will encounter in the NAXOSD DVD of the Deutsche Oper Berlin production of Riccardo Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini is an image of the façade of the company’s home, designed by architect Fritz Bornemann in 1961.

The blunt brutalist aesthetic of the building is echoed in many of the company’s operatic productions, including this one by Christof Loy, in which the director and his design team emphasize the contemporaneous quality of the story at the expense of the once-upon-a-time tone of the opera’s libretto.

The 1914 opera, inspired by a passage in the Fifth Canto of Dante’s Inferno tells of the fate of an Italian woman who was murdered by her husband when he discovered her and his brother in flagrante delicto.

Tito Ricordi’s libretto, based in turn on Gabriele D’Annunzio’s eponymous poem brings to vivid life the story’s larger than life characters and their passions.

Beyond being an accomplished orchestrator, Zandonai’s greatest gift resides in writing for the voice in an unforced manner that accommodates text to music naturally. In addition one hears throughout the four acts of Francesca da Rimini flashes of inspired melodic brilliance, interspersed with a simple linking of scene to scene and moment to moment.

Francesca da Rimini is a musical mix of late 19th century Italian Romanticism – the one ever present in Puccini along with the gritty Realism of Leoncavallo, Mascagni, Cilea, Giordano and Boito – all composers who, in one way or another, influenced, or mentored, or supported the efforts of Zandonai.

Zandonai’s theatrical style could be simply labeled Naturalism, while its musical counterpart may be described as a kind of second cousin to the blood and guts Verismo of Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci and Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana.  But, unlike that of either one of those operas, the music of Francesca da Rimini is structured as a kind of continuous thorough-composed dialogue that lacks many if any set pieces. When one suspects that one of those might be coming around, like in the pre-coital encounter for Paolo and Francesca, Paolo, datemi pace the straight-shooting approach of both the composer and the director are just perfect.

The cast of first-rank Europe-based singers is superb. In the title role of Francesca, American soprano Sara Jakubiak is visually, dramatically, and vocally brilliant. So is her counterpart, the sonorous tenor Jonathan Tefelman in the role of Paolo. Both these singers have resilient vocal equipment that can withstand the rigors of Zandonai’s no-holds barred vocal writing.

Baritone Ivan Inverardi is vocally impressive and dramatically pure coiled anger personified as Giovanni. In a supporting role made more important by his talent, Charles Workman is flawless as the physically and emotionally impaired Malatestino.

Carlo Rizzi perfectly paces a dozen more principal singes, and the Deutsche Oper Berlin Orchestra and Chorus in this indispensable, impeccably engineered video recording of a rarity whose long-overdue time has come.

Rafael de Acha        ALL ABOUT THE ARTS