The Met Streams Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini

By Lynne Gray, PhD

Please note this can be seen at www.metopera.org

Thursday, July 9 

Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini  ~ 2Hrs 22Mins

Starring Eva-Maria Westbroek, Marcello Giordani, and Mark Delavan, conducted by Marco Armiliato. From March 16, 2013.

The music of early 20th-century Italian Verismo composer, Francesco Zandonai, has largely been forgotten these days – with the exception of his 1914 opera based on an episode from Dante’s Inferno. The decidedly melodramatic plot concerns a passionate affair between the title character and the handsome brother of a cruel and disfigured warlord whom she was tricked into marrying. Their illicit love leads to the predictably violent and tragic end, but not before Zandonai makes a pretty good case for increased recognition of his music, which is often quite beautiful and luxuriously orchestrated.

Eva-Maria Westbroek stars in the title role of Zandonai’s romantic drama, opposite Marcello Giordani as Paolo. Piero Faggioni’s lush production provides a lovely setting for one of the world’s most famous tales of tragic passion. Mark Delavan co-stars as Giovanni, the husband and brother of the star-crossed lovers, whose jealousy and pride leads him to kill them both. Robert Brubaker is the third brother, Malatestino, and Marco Armiliato conducts. 

Francesca da Rimini or Francesca da Polenta (1255 – c. 1285) was an actual person – the daughter of Guido da Polenta, lord of Ravenna. She was forced for political reasons to marry the crippled Giovanni Malatesta (also called Gianciotto or “Giovanni the Lame”), who was the son of Malatesta da Verucchio, lord of Rimini. Francesca was a contemporary of Dante Alighieri, who first portrayed her as a character in his Divine Comedy. Since then, many other artists – painters, composers, dramatists, writers, and sculptors – have been inspired by her story, including the great Victorian (Pre-Raphaelite) painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. In the first volume of The Divine Comedy, Dante and Virgil encounter Francesca and her lover Paolo in the second circle of hell which is the one reserved for the lustful. There, the couple are trapped in an eternal whirlwind, doomed to be forever swept through the air – presumably just as they allowed themselves to be swept away by their passions. Dante calls out to the lovers, who momentarily pause before him, and he speaks with Francesca. Revealing a few details of her life and her death, Dante apparently recognizes the story and correctly identifies her by name. When he asks her what led to the couple’s sad damnation, her story apparently strikes such a chord within him that he faints from pity…. and the lovers’ legend lives on.

So, what is this pitiful story? Briefly, Francesca has been promised by her father to Giovanni, the malformed son of Malatesta da Verucchio in order to cement a peace between the two families. Being quite sure that she would refuse to marry Giovanni if she were to see him before the wedding, an elaborate plot was conceived to entrap her. Giovanni’s younger brother, Paolo (Il bello – the handsome) is dispatched to Ravenna to collect the bride. Francesca is introduced to Paolo, and although they are not allowed to exchange any words, she instantly falls in love with him, believing he is her intended and presenting him with a rose. Unhappily for them both, the feeling is mutual. She signs the contract and is taken to Rimini only to discover in her marriage bed that the son she married was not Paolo. 

The next act begins with a fierce battle in progress between the Guelphs and Ghibellines (constantly warring Italian supporters of the power of the Pope vs those who support the power of the Holy Roman Emperor). Francesca, now married to Giovanni, encounters Paolo near the battle and gently reproaches him for the fraud practiced upon her. He claims he was ignorant of it until it was too late and reveals his true love for her. Meanwhile, we find there is a third brother, Malatestino, is also smitten with Francesca. After the battle, Giovanni announces that Paolo has been elected to a high position in Florence and Paolo departs.

In the third act, Francesca is in her apartments, reading to her ladies – and wouldn’t you know – it is the story of Lancelot and Guinevere. On a whispered word from her servant, Francesca dismisses the women, and Paolo, who has just returned from Florence sick with longing for her, enters. They continue reading the story together, until, of course, they can no longer stand the tension and succumb to it.

In the final act, the truly evil brother, Malatestino, is still lusting after Francesca and desperately pleads his case to her, even offering to poison Giovanni which repulses her. Horrified by his continued insistence, she angrily rejects him and he leaves just as Giovanni arrives. Francesca quickly tells her husband about Malatestino’s ugly advances, and when Giovanni later confronts his brother, Malatestino diverts his attention by claiming that he has often seen Paolo entering Francesca’s room at night. Giovanni demands proof and the two brothers devise a plan to surprise the lovers that very night. Accordingly, he forces his way into the room and is about to stab Paolo when Francesca jumps between them and is killed herself. Giovanni then stabs Paolo as well, and the lovers die in each other’s arms. Ah, opera!

Picture Credits

1. Eva-Maria Westbroek in the title role and Marcello Giordani as Paolo “il Bello” in Zandonai’s “Francesca da Rimini” at the Met, 2013. Photo Credit: Marty Sohl / Metropolitan Opera.

2. Painting: Paolo and Francesca da Rimini by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1862).

3. Eva-Maria Westbroek in the title role in Zandonai’s “Francesca da Rimini” at the Met, 2013. Photo credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

4. Marcello Giordani in Zandonai’s “Francesca da Rimini” at the Met, 2013. Photo Credit: Ruby Washington / The New York Times.

5. Eva-Maria Westbroek in the title role and Marcello Giordani as Paolo in Zandonai’s “Francesca da Rimini” at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo Credit: Marty Sohl / Metropolitan Opera.

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