Rachmaninov – Francesca da Rimini

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Rachmaninov
Francesca da Rimini – An opera in two scenes with prologue and epilogue to a libretto by Modest Tchaikovsky, after Dante

The Shade of Virgil – Gennady Bezzubenkov
Dante – Evgeny Akimov
Lanceotto Malatesta – Sergey Murzaev
Francesca – Svetla Vassileva
Paolo – Misha Didyk

BBC Singers

BBC Philharmonic
Gianandrea Noseda

Recorded 13 & 15 May 2007 in Studio 7, BBC Broadcasting House, Manchester


Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: December 2007
CD No: CHANDOS CHAN 10442
Duration: 65 minutes

 

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Rachmaninov‘s “Francesca da Rimini” is perhaps better encountered on recordings than in the theatre, since by general consensus it is an inconsistent opera saddled by a poor libretto and lacking in drama. Of the many criticisms levelled at it are assertions that the Prologue is over-extended and the Epilogue rushed, and that the actual story does not develop naturally and credibly. That being said UK audiences did get a change to challenge this received wisdom when Opera North staged the piece as part of its “Eight Little Greats” series a few years ago. Whilst not one of the most successful presentations of that season, some of its musical virtues were evident in those performances as indeed they are here.

Chandos’s recording with the BBC Philharmonic under Gianandrea Noseda presents the orchestral score in a great deal of clarity, allowing the listener to really relish the complexities of the dense and chromatic writing of the mournful and atmospheric Prelude with its short sighing figures, and their subsequent development. The word-less chorus, provided here by the versatile BBC Singers, is very much integrated into the orchestral palette. The solo voices are rather more forwardly placed when they finally enter, not always to their benefit. As the Shade of Virgil and as Dante Chandos has cast two of Gergiev’s Mariinsky stalwarts Gennady Bezzubenkov and Evgeny Akimov. As native Russians both are perfectly idiomatic. Bezzubenkov is as characterful as ever but his voice is not as focussed as it once was and the microphone catches occasional blustery delivery. Akimov, with his penetrating and reedy tone, has rather less to do alas.

Prelude eventually over we move to the actual drama and encounter the deformed Lanceotto Malatesta, about to leave his wife Francesca in the care of his handsome brother Paolo who wooed her for him before their marriage. Consumed with jealousy he suspects them to be in love and having an affair. When he confronts Francesca about this she responds simply that she will obey him as her duty requires, but she remains noncommittal about love for him. Malatesta’s scena is full of variety and has some strong outbursts although the sentiments are rather standard operatic fare. Sergey Murzaev’s strong and virile voice is well suited to the part, although his interpretation seems rather stock.

As a comparison I listened to the 1997 recording on Deutsche Grammophon conducted by Neeme Järvi with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. There Malatesta is Sergei Leiferkus, who presents a rather nastier and calculating character with his distinct and resinous voice. On that recording Francesca is Maria Guleghina, and she is definitely preferable to Svetla Vassileva, the voice being in better control and less strident at the top. That being said Vassileva certainly is characterful and her singing has a raw theatricality that is pretty persuasive.

When the lovers are stimulated by reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere to finally admit their mutual attraction, she and Misha Didyk certainly open the floodgates and indulge in some pretty overwhelming full-throttled vocalism. Like hers his tone is insistent, and if anything it needs to be heroic. However, the music here reveals the composer at his most operatically Romantic, and one does get rather carried away by it all. In this respect Noseda’s reading is perhaps rather more exhilarating and theatrical than Järvi’s. Certainly Chandos’s recorded sound allows the orchestral score to register with greater clarity.

Overall I prefer the cast of the older recording to that of the new, but the Chandos recording is the more vivid of the two. Both will remain on my shelves. Individual preference will probably depend on whether you are a singer person or an orchestral one. For those wishing to hear the work for the first time the Chandos is certainly a strong recommendation.

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