Marcello Giordani as Paolo il Bello and Eva-Maria Westbroek in the title role in Zandonai's "Francesca da Rimini."
Taken during the rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera on February 26, 2013. (Photo : Photo: Marty Sohl/ Metropolitan Opera)
This review is for the performance on Saturday March 9, 2013.
One of the major characteristics of the Peter Gelb era at the Metropolitan Opera House has been the reintroduction of obscure repertoire. The Gelb years have witnessed the Met premieres of such Bel Canto classics like Donizetti's "Anna Bolena" and "Maria Stuarda" and new works such as Thomas Ades' "The Tempest" and next year's "Two Boys" by Nico Muhly. Among the works that Gelb has resuscitated this season is Riccardo Zandonai 's rare gem "Francesca Da Rimini."
The opera is based on an episode from Dante's "Inferno" regarding the star-crossed lovers Paolo Malatesta and Francesca. Paolo ventures to Ravena to ask for the hand of Francesca for his deformed brother Giovanni but the two fall in love in the process. When Francesca becomes his sister-in-law, the couple engages in a forbidden affair. Enter Giovanni and the final Malatesta sibling Malatestino. The former finds out about the affair from the latter and kills the two lovers upon discovering them in the act.
The music combines elements of impressionism with Italian verismo. The result is a sweeping score filled with variety, but also lacking in continuous melody that dominates Italian opera. Conductor Mario Armiliato did a fantastic job of blending the multi-faceted score to create continuous flow and propulsion. He was also brilliant in emphasizing the few moments of wonderful lyricism such as the two duets between the lovers and a poignant passage at the end of the first act that is led by a solo cello onstage. Conductor Mario Armiliato created a serene atmosphere in the orchestra that allowed cellist Jerry Grossman's yearning tone and delicate phrasing to resonate gloriously throughout the hall.
Eva-Maria Westbroek made a solid house debut a few seasons ago as Sieglinde in Wagner's "Die Walkure" but her turn as "Francesca" is her major breakout on the Met stage. Her voice is a powerful and heavy instrument, but Westbroek brings fluidity of line that adds elegance to her singing. During the third act duet with Paolo, Francesca has an extended lyrical passage in which she implores the hero to give her peace. Westbroek sang most of this passage with a delicate piano that expressed the vulnerability of Francesca before her object of affection. When Francesca saw Paolo for the first time, Westbroek's reaction was one of conflict; she smiled brilliantly, but clutched her hands over her face as if nervous. As she moved about the set frantically this conflict was expressed in her alternatively delicate and potent singing. The moment really engaged the viewer and brought a depth to Francesca that could easily be ignored in favor of a more straightforward reaction of happiness.
Her scenes with tenor Marcello Giordani were electric with the two clearly in tune with one another. The aforementioned cello solo accompanies the lovers' meeting at the end of act one; there is no singing whatsoever. Westbroek and Giordani circled each other, creating a tremendous tension. It was obvious that they had both been taken aback by one another, but given the circumstances, they were both working hard to restrain their emotions. Giordani eventually moved away from Westbroek, but the soprano then picked up a rose and gave it to him. He knelt over, clearly in pain and accepted. The scene was a glorious moment that is unexpected and rare from opera singers due to its emphasis on acting without the vocal resources to support it. During their two duets, the lovers matched each other in intensity, creating a tremendous drive that made their love believable.
Giordani is well past his prime and his voice has developed an unstable tremble in its middle and lower range. Nonetheless, his turn as Paolo was one of his best performances in years at the Met. His high notes rang with brilliance and confidence while his legato was fluid and elegant. He moved about with grace and dignity, giving Paolo a brilliant contrast to the other two Malatesta siblings.
Mark Delavan gave a riveting performance as Giovanni Malatesta; from the moment he ran on stage, he was a dominating presence. He bellowed his opening lines with ferocity as he limped around, making him more animal than man. However, as the performance wore on, his delicate human side took over. As he attempted to embrace Francesca at one point in the second act, he looked uncomfortable, almost ashamed of his deformity in the presence of such a beautiful woman. The first scene of the fourth act was a tour-de-force display by Delavan as the animal and human side raged in perpetual struggle. During his short scene with Francesca, Delavan sang softly, almost as if Giovanni were trying to appeal to Francesca with a more romantic approach. However, as she ran off stage in fright, his voice pierced through the orchestra with almost superhuman volume. When Malatestino told him of Paolo's betrayal, he uttered Paolo's name quietly, the pain of the deception rang viscerally throughout. But then he surprisingly threw down a table and raged at his younger brother; it almost seemed as if he was ready to kill him on stage.
Robert Brubaker was equally potent as the sadistic Malatestino. His voice almost matched the power and intensity of Delavan's but he brought a sardonic edge that made him despicable.
The production by Piero Faggioni is a superb reminder of why so many opera fans love lavish traditional sets. The first scene showcases the interior and partial exterior of Francesca's home prior to her marriage. The second act shows off a tower of Giovanni's castle while the third act portrays Francesca's room. In act four scene one another area of Giovanni's castle is showcased, while the final scene portrays a reverse angle of Francesca's room. Every single one of the five scenes is brilliantly detailed, but never to the point of distraction. However, the production's most exceptional aspect is balance and consistency. Every single set has a similar configuration with a rectangular "column" in the center of an otherwise symmetrical space. The column creates a strong visual division in the middle of the stage, almost accenting the rigid societal rules that stand between the equally passionate lovers. More interesting to note is that in acts one and three, the central "column" represents the outdoors and also seems to suggest the minimal freedom that the central characters possess. The final scene in Francesca's room subverts this structure by reversing the angle; instead of the window that is visible in act three a wall dominates the background, emphasizing the trap and fate of the characters. When they die however, the wall upstage splits in half releasing the characters from the world once and for all; their freedom has cost them the highest price.
"Francesca" offers the opera lover a rare opportunity to experience a seldom-performed gem of the repertoire. Each act lasts little over 30 minutes, making the experience all the more manageable for the uninitiated. Ultimately, the singers, conductor, and exquisite production make this a great revival at the Metropolitan Opera.