Eight Little Greats – No.5: Francesca da Rimini

Francesca da Rimini [Sung in Amanda Holden’s English translation]

Paolo / Dante – Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts
Malatesta / Ghost of Virgil – Jonathan Summers
Francesca – Nina Pavlovski

Souls of the Damned – Chorus of Opera North

Orchestra of Opera North
Martin André

Director – David Pountney
Designer – Johan Engels
Costumes – Sue Willmington
Lighting – Adam Silverman

Reviewed by: Alexander Campbell

Reviewed: 24 June, 2004
Venue: Sadler's Wells Theatre, London

Francesca da Rimini is one of the more curious little operas being presented by Opera North. Based on an episode in ‘Canto V’ of Dante’s “Inferno”, which inspired many a composer to swathes of romanticism, the story might have been expected to provide Rachmaninov with plenty of scope to pen one of the most lush and wholesome of operas on this subject. However, it appears on this showing that the libretto written by Modest Tchaikovsky (the composer’s brother) is so static and poorly structured that the stage drama never quite gets off the ground.

The prologue, set in Hell, reveals the spirits of the doomed Francesca and her lover Paolo locked in embrace, and then we move to Scene One to find out their story. Malatesta, a deformed and bitter warrior about to depart for war entrusts his wife Francesca to the care of his younger, handsome brother Paolo whom he suspects of having an affair with his wife. Paolo had wooed her on Malatesta’s behalf and he knows that Francesca does not love him. Malatesta intends to return sooner than planned to catch them unawares.

The libretto provided Rachmaninov with a chance to pen a great aria for the baritone singing Malatesta, in which he pours out the history and his suspicions. In this performance Jonathan Summers sang Malatesta with real venom and incisiveness, in his distinctive inky voice, and made every word of Amanda Holden’s translation tell.

The two lovers remain little more than ciphers, as they are only seen together briefly as they become aware of their true passion, whilst reading a love story involving Sir Lancelot. As they embrace for the first time Malatesta arrives, but at that moment the drama is suspended and we are returned to Hell as the souls of the lovers drift away.

Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts sang Paolo, and although he got much of the text across one felt that he was somewhat over-parted. The role requires one of those big trumpeting Russian tenors that are a pretty rare commodity. His was a brave stab at the part, but the tone was often strained and not very ingratiating. Nina Pavlovski, who had been such a wonderful Giorgetta in Il Tabarro the previous evening, seemed strangely out of sorts as Francesca. Perhaps it was tiredness, but her singing was ill-focussed, strident and occasionally out of tune. Her English was unintelligible. A disappointing performance.

But all was not gloom and doom. The real drama occurs in the pit and in Rachmaninov’s densely chromatic score, which Martin André and the Opera North Orchestra unfolded with real abandon and wonderful impetus. The torrent of sound unleashed by the strings in the prelude to Scene Two suggested it were being played by forces at least double those present. Also remarkable were the contributions of the chorus as the damned souls of Hell who frame the work. In this production they were depicted as itinerant, over-coated travellers with suitcases being buffeted forlornly.

David Pountney’s production looked great in Johan Engel’s designs. The stage was dominated by a cage structure with torn grilles that allowed the singers to move in an out. It was effectively lit – but one of the disadvantages was that Paolo and Francesca were often placed at the back of the stage behind the cage and were not always visible.

I think it would be hard to stage this work much more effectively as it seems the piece simply does not work as drama. It was interesting to see it – and it will be intriguing to see Glyndebourne’s production of The Miserly Knight this year, as this was Francesca’s original companion piece.

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