Riccardo Zandonai: Francesca da Rimini (1914)

Opera in four acts. Running Time 2 hours 17 minutes.

Feel free to try out a different performance, I just happen to like the casting here. Magda Olivero in the title role and Mario del Monaco as Paolo il Bello (pictured in the featured image). Live performance from Milan, 1959.

PLOT: Ravenna and Rimini. Sort of like Parisina (what is up with historical medieval Italian women, adultery, and getting killed for it). Francesca weds much older and deformed Giovanni by proxy ceremony with his much younger brother Paolo who is sex on legs and known as “il bello”. They eventually do, they eventually die.



ACT 1: A Courtyard in the house of Polenta (!), Francesca’s father.

13: The opening keeps up this “dum-dum-dum-dum” tear drop effect for several minutes which isn’t a few miles away from the Chinese dance in The Nutcracker while Francesca’s ladies torment the court jester into reading them, of all things, Tristan and Isolde to an ornery violin accompaniment. It is sort of depressing. The girls run off in a whirlwind. Ostasio, Francesca’s brother, interrogates the jester as to if he knows just who his sister is marrying. Sir Toldo (tenor), an agent of Giovanni and Paolo’s father Malatesta arrives and reveals to Ostasio that his sister will be tricked into marrying Giovanni by proxy with his handsome brother Paolo as the lure. This is all low brooding. At last, the moods starts to lighten up just a little and there is some medieval film score type music as a rather haunting chorus of women introduces Francesca **. The orchestra does try just a little too hard to sound modern. This turns into a duet with her sister Samaritana. There is a brief burst of melody here just before the wedding bells ring out!

23: The imminent arrival of Giovanni/Paolo and the girls surround their mistress.

27: Francesca in esctasy * as she meets Paolo in total silence, an explosion leading to an ocean of serenity and a chorus of maidens singing about May to an OK tune. The orchestra does crescendo alright, but it feels like it should be better than this. It takes a while to play out.

ACT 2: A piazza and tower in the house of Malatesta.

2: There is apparently a battle going on between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines (what else is new) but you wouldn’t know it from the hyper-drama going on between Francesca and Paolo when she confronts him. He wasn’t in on the trick marriage by proxy to his lame brother (this smells rather implausible). But the scene is good **.

7: A chorus of off-stage women bomb out, the Guelphs have won (this is good because Malatesta is one of them). All musical pandemonium breaks loose ** for three solid minutes. But one of their knights has died. Francesca starts freaking out about Paolo dying for barely any logical reason and the this point if there was any doubt of their passion for each other it is totally exhausted.

18: Giovanni comes on and beats on Paolo. Ornery stuff again. Giovanni reads out news for him, he has been elected Captain of the People of Florence. Francesca cheers Paolo (sorrowfully) with a cup of wine for him *. There is a black out and then some disturbance and then Francesca freaks out again, followed by ornery again.

23: Choral freak out again **. Explosive, a category 5 hurricane, but again musically all over the place.

ACT 3: Francesca’s apartment.

1: Francesca is reading, what else? Tristan and Isolde. She freaks out in front of her maids * but successfully avoids mentioning Paolo directly.

11: There is a happy little chorus from the ladies in waiting **. A bright patch in such depressing love-lorn times. It has a second, stronger, reprisal, around a minute or so later. I hate saying this but this is the best number so far in the opera.

18: An agitated intermezzo before Paolo arrives *. The music is starting, just starting to take a turn for the better here.

21: He arrives, and Francesca greets him in the most formal manner * but you can tell from his music that he wants her, really badly.

24: Francesca does some emoting to a rather lovely accompaniment **.

27: He responds with a little less gentleness than I would expect given the orchestra **.

30: Finally, in him exclaiming his desire and she squealing with barely hidden delight, the opera finally reaches greatness ***. Soon there is shimmering madness in the orchestra as they alternate. He is more interesting and she as she tends to melt in soprano sweetness. His passion is a bit more obvious.

35: He attempts to kiss her, silence.

37: The kiss, madness, terror, ecstasy **. The orchestra goes Tristan on us wildly and the chorus pulls off one more bit as Paolo cries out Francesca’s name like an animal in heat and Francesca quietly reciprocates. The curtain gently falls.

ACT 4:

Scene 1: A room in the shape of a octagon (for some unknown reason).

0: Almost immediately, Francesca comes on with Malatestino (the youngest of the three brothers in this family, also like Paolo a tenor). But he is a crafty one and knows that Francesca is putting out for Paolo while married to Giovanni and wants in on some of the action. The whole scene is a rather lyrical ** duel between Malatestino’s ikky advances and Francesca’s outbursts of utter terror and what is up with the tenor (Paolo) screaming as if being tortured in the downstairs dungeon.

8: Giovanni arrives. Francesca times to explain what is going on in her favour. It only partially works. More screams from Paolo and then Malatestino can be heard, this time in the distance.

13: Malatestino tells his side of the story. Giovanni at first isn’t buying it and rages at his brother but slowly all the alcohol M is having him drink breaks down his defences. There is of course also the fact that although he is lecherous, Malatestino is actually telling the truth regarding Francesca’s adultery with Paolo.

19: Giovanni bombs out *, the fact of Paolo’s beauty is the give away, obviously Francesca is sleeping with him. The scene ends with some of the most traditionally Verdian music in the entire opera.

Scene 2: Francesca’s room.

22: The last 18 minutes of the opera start off with a desolate theme similar to the prelude to act 1 but a little more fleshed out **. The ladies in waiting chirp amongst themselves to this melody for some time.

27: Francesca has a rather lyrical exchange with her maid Biancofiore ***. This is rather sad but also sweetly striking. It doesn’t require anything of the listener. Six quiet but stunning minutes.

37: Now all that is left is the play out of the last six and a half minutes, the getting caught and the getting dead. Francesca opens the door to Paolo and they engage in some more Tristan-style duetting (mostly her at first and not that exciting but eventually things start to rise ** before the end). Suddenly Giovanni and Malatestino are heard breaking down the door, finding the lovers and slaying them. The gears change so fast that it is hard to figure out anything. Terrifying in multiple ways.

Francesca da Rimini is a combination of melodic and ornery music, or music that is, in all frankness, boring. The star ratings indicate where these are. The female choruses, the love duets (where Zandonai is particularly flattering to Paolo), Francesca’s exchange with her maid in the final scene are all lovely along with Francesca’s violent encounter with Malatestino, but they are islands in a sea of the musically ornery. The opera spreads its plot very unevenly and about half of the story takes place in the finale act. Nothing actually happens at all until act 3 except Francesca and Paolo silently meeting, falling passionately in love with each other, and him marrying her off to his deformed brother. The “not being in on the trick proxy wedding” is more than slightly hard to believe. Zandonai also has a tendency to go into bombast mode with his finales and these are hurricane level, but at the same time not very tuneful. Thankfully, although a mixed work, Zandonai saves his best music for the last two (longer) acts rather than sticking things at the beginning. In spite of one of the most ornery starts in all opera, and massive patches of it well into the pen-ultimate scene, Francesca is redeemed by its other, wonderful passages which invoke an even then long lost age of Italian musical elegance.  B+ or B.

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