Wednesday, March 20, 2013


Eva-Maria Westbroek as Francesca  and Marcello Giordani as Paolo il Bello.
Photo: Marty Sohl/ Metropolitan Opera

Reviewed by James Karas

Francesca da Rimini is a melodrama by Riccardo Zandonai based on a classic Italian plot that nevertheless borrows strands from Wagner and Strauss. The result is a German-lite, Italian- wavelength opera that is easy on the ears and quite a spectacle in the Metropolitan Opera’s production beamed around the world.

The Met last produced Francesca in 1984 and it has dusted off Piero Faggioni’s production after keeping it in storage for some 27 years. It is a staging on a Zeffirelian scale with grandiose sets, heroic singing and an approach that defines grand opera. It has much to recommend it even if it may appear dated to some.

Francesca’s story has a pedigree non-pareil: Dante tells her story in the Inferno in the Canto about the fate of the lustful. Francesca is led to believe that she is marrying the handsome Paolo but he is merely standing in for his ugly brother Gianciotto Malatesta. However, she and Paolo fall madly in love. Without belaboring the obvious, they are discovered and, four acts later, have an unhappy end. In fact, their fate is so unhappy that Dante himself fainted upon hearing it!

The libretto is by Tito Ricordi who based it on a play by Gabriele D’Annunzio who, of course, started with Dante.  

Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbrook has a big, dramatic voice and a marvelous profile to go with it. Her Francesca is a humanized Wagnerian character, passionate on a big scale, a fearless woman who seeks her lover in the midst of battle.

Francesca falls in love with Paolo (tenor Marcello Giordani) on first encounter without a word being spoken. Giordano has the perfect voice for the role and he seems to handle the singing and posturing effortlessly. The two get a terrific love duet in the second act and meet their fate with due heroism.

The bad guys are Gianciotto (Mark Delavan) and his brother Malatestino (Robert Brubaker). Delevan has to sing mostly in his upper register and that put some strain on his voice. However, he never really let us down as Francesca’s creepy husband. The real baddy is Malatestino, a sadistic little creep who should be brought up on charges of sexual assault. Brubaker seems to relish the role and gives a fine performance.

Faggioni, with Set Designer Ezio Frigerio and Costume Designer Franca Squaricipiano, wants to give us a production on a grand scale with massive sets, gorgeous costumes and a cast of thousands, well, maybe just hundreds. The battle scene in the second act would be the envy of some movie producers. In this one instance, not being able to see the entire stage of the Metropolitan added to the impression of an immense panorama.

The characters are drawn on a heroic scale as well and the mellower love scenes and quieter moments do nothing to detract from that impression. You cannot get that scale or style of production every day of the week and you might as well enjoy it when it comes.

Marco Armiliato conducted the Metropolitan Opera orchestra with dramatic flair and brought out the best in the score.

A few words about what we saw on the screen thanks to Gary Halvorson, the Director for Cinema. Without putting too fine of a point on it, his direction went from the atrocious to the execrable. It looked like a hyperactive child with a three-second attention span playing a video game. Click, click.

The second act is taken up largely by a battle scene. Grandiose battlements, war cries, crossbows are all there. Our hero Paolo uses his crossbow to good effect especially if you consider that he has no arrows. If Halvorson did not repeatedly click on close-ups, we would not know or care if Paolo’s weapon is loaded.

It gets worse. Paolo is “shot” by an enemy arrow. Halvorson clicks on a close-up so we can see that the arrow is stuck on a girder and not on Paolo. Francesca looks for blood, Paolo acts as if he were hit when it is obvious that nothing has happened. A respectful longshot would have been immeasurably more effective and the dramatic scene would not have been reduced to ludicrous.

It gets worse. After the victory, a servant is about to pour wine in a goblet for the victor. Click on the pitcher so we can see that she is not pouring anything. The number of such idiotic close-ups is simply countless. This is directing for cinema at its level worst. Click.    

Francesca da Rimini by Riccardo Zandonai was shown Live in HD on March 16, 2013 at The Beach Cinemas, 1651 Queen Street East, Toronto, ON, M4L 1G5 and other theatres across Canada. For more information:

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