As the curtains part for Zandonai’s masterpiece, Francesca da Rimini, the stage beckons in all its gauzy, beautiful glory. A maiden starts to sing playfully to her fellows, she is startled by the presence of a minstrel entering the courtyard. Against a backdrop of enchanting Italian greenery, the maidens and minstrel prance back and forth in coquettish song and dance. It seems, for a moment, as if the opera will be a crisp flowery breeze, lighthearted and airy, with an ending as neat and uplifting as any Mozart comedy.
At this point in time, however, the viewer has yet to meet the opera’s stars: Francesca da Rimini, played by the capable Eva-Maria Westbroek, or her love interest, Paolo, played by Italian tenor Marcello Giordani. The lovers’ story is anything but light. Francesca da Rimini is a fabled historical figure from 13th century Italy. Made famous by Dante in a canto of his Divine Comedy, Francesca’s tale exemplifies the second circle of hell—lust. Forced into marriage with a brutal, deformed man named Gianciotto, Francesca falls in love with Gianciotto's brother, her fair brother-in-law Paolo. The two carry out a passionate affair until Gianciotto uncovers their secret and murders them both.
So, as the minstrel begins to sing for the maidens of the tragic love story of Tristan and Isolde, a shiver ripples through the magical forest. The tale of Tristan and Isolde is obvious foreshadowing, and the stages’s physical beauty becomes a tease, a sharp contrast to the tragedy that will inevitably befall the characters.
To accommodate the elaborate sets and costumes, the opera, clocking in at 213 minutes, has four fifteen-minute intermissions. Though this is a rather large ratio of intermission to opera, the divine sets are worth the wait. Set designer Ezio Frigerio begins with a stunning stage that feels impressionistic, like a Monet painting. As the story continues, action takes place on the battlefield, and in the bedroom of Francesca. In the bedroom, especially, Frigerio’s attention to detail is impressive. Little touches like real flowers, a window with blue sky, and flickers from lit candles truly enrich the story.
Amidst all this beauty, the tragic love unfolds between Francencsa and Paolo. More poignantly, however, Westbroek captures first Francesca’s youthfulness and then her regrettable loss of innocence as the hardships of reality shatter her fantasies of happiness and true love.
In opera, a genre in which characters frequently die only to reawaken for one last aria, the moment Francesca and Paolo meet is rendered, surprisingly, without words. At the end of Act I, Francesca goes to the rose garden to meet the man she thinks will be her future husband. Locked eyes, hands entwined through the lattice of a gate, a single rose, passed from Francesca to Paolo: These are the acts that signify a budding love. “How wonderful opera would be if there were no singers,” Rossini once exclaimed. In this case, he stands correct. Without singing there is space for Zandonai’s impressive score to portray what Francesca and Paolo feel, it is easy to imagine the hopes that each holds. Francecsa’s situation is especially affecting. This is the epitome of her hopeful innocence. After singing an aria with her sister about her fear of marriage, Francesca believes that she looks upon a handsome future husband, the audience knows her hopes shall soon wither.
In Act II Francesca has succumbed to life with a man she has not chosen. Here is the burden of her womanhood: unhappiness, confinement, and few attainable dreams. But in a blue toned castle Paolo and Francesca meet again. Clothed in fiery orange to match the battlefield (and their hearts), they reveal their mutual love. Amidst a raging battle the opera also introduces Paolo and Gianciotto’s third brother, the wicked Malatestino, played by American tenor Robert Brubaker, as a convincing battle-crazed soldier.
The opera really picks up steam in the last few acts. Act III begins with Francesca and her maidens sitting in Francesca’s bedroom. Spring is here, the maiden’s dance with doves, but Francesca, dressed in a heavy maroon gown, is isolated from them, and burdened by the conflict between her desires and her responsibilities. The previous scene, filled with the clash or armies, transforms into a war between emotion and reason, obligation and passion. When Paolo comes to visit Francesca and comfort her nightmares Francesca pushes him away. Yet, as the two read to each other the story of Guinivere and Lancelot, lingering hands, fluttering lashes, and the romance of the score signal lust. The lure of Paolo, who represents choice and freedom, and all the hopes of a lingering gauzy-gowned girl, is too much to resist. They do, finally, embrace.
Sadly their love lasts for a brief minute before Malatestino ruins it all. When Gianciotto leaves his castle on a trip, Malatestino discovers the romance between Francesca and Paolo. Emboldened by this knowledge, Malatestino professes his own interest in Francesca. Francesca rejects him and tells Gianciotto of his behavior. During a raging, angry duet between Malastentino and Gianciotto, sung by American baritone Mark Delavan, Malatestino exposes the relationship between Paolo and Francesca in order to save himsef from the wrath of his frightening, but stupendously sung, older brother. Giaciotto rushes to see that Malatestino’s claims are true and upon witnessing Paolo and Francesca together, kills them both.
Amidst the beauty of the set and costumes Francesca lies dead because of her desire to love. What a pity to be a woman in the 13th century, objectified, taxed with being virginal and good. This makes the contrast between the two, between the perfection of the set and the raggedness of Francesca’s feelings, absolutely heartbreaking. But in the way that only a good opera can be.
An encore of the performance will take place April 3rd at 6:30 pm local time in select theaters. Ticket prices vary. Visit: www.FathomEvents.com or http://www.metoperafamily.org/hdlive for more information
Photos courtesy of Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera