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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Opera Review: Cheaters Never Win

The Met goes medieval with Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Purple prose: Marcello Giordani (l.) and Eva-Marie Westbroek are doomed lovers in
Riccardo Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini. Photo by Marty Sohl © 2013 The Metropolitan Opera.
On Monday night at the Metroplitan Opera, New York’s best-equipped opera company unveiled its first revival of Riccardo Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini in 25 years. This 1914 opera has hovered at the fringes of the standard repertory for almost a century. It is only produced when there’s a star soprano determined to take on the challenge of playing the love-struck title role. This handsome production from Piero Faggioni allowed the audience to time-travel back three decades to see how grand opera was done back in the 1980s--when this production was mounted for Renata Scotto.

Today's diva is Eva-Marie Westbroek, who made her reputation as Sieglinde in the house’s current production of Wagner’s Ring. Francesca shares several points with Wagner’s epic: themes of adultery and incest dominate the story, with the passionate lovers Paolo "il Bello" Malatesta (Marcello Giordani) and Francesca cuckolding a brutish husband--Paolo's hunch-backed brother. In addition to his choice of a literary, medieval subject (the real Francesca was murdered in the year 1285) Zandonai shows a marked preference for rich orchestration and long scenes of music drama dialogue in place of traditional arias and duets.

Unfortunately, four acts proved that Zandonai is no Wagner. The weighty score has its moments, with a gorgeous opening ensemble building up to the first meeting of Paolo and Francesca. And then...curtain. An impressive Act II battle chorus (delivered from a wooden siege tower that looked like something out of Game Of Thrones) provided opportunities for the chorus and helmeted supernumeraries to offer loud, macho support. In Act III, foreshadowing in the libretto sets up a huge, Tristan-esque duet for Paolo and Francesca that ultimately never materializes. When the shows dramatic payload finally detonates in the fourth and final act, it proves to be meager reward for such a long buildup.

Ms. Westbroek said in recent Met promotional interviews that Francesca is her "dream" role. (With her considerable abilities, she might be more ambitious.) She threw herself into the character, making the most of her troubled marriage to the vicious Gianciotto (Mark Delevan) and her subsequent, disastrous affair with Paolo. But the score did not give her enough moments to cut loose with her instrument and show her full, capabilities as a dramatic leading lady.

Marcello Giordani still looks good in a suit of armor but his burly stage presence belies a voice that has worn from long use on the stages of the world. The timbre narrowed and threatened to crack when singing over the thundering orchestra, and conductor Marco Armiliato proved to be an enthusiastic, if unsubtle accompanist. Mr. Giordani's middle register is still strong and supple, making him far better suited to the boudoir shenanigans with Ms. Westbroek in the third act. The tenor was running out of voice in Act IV, straining to be heard over the thick orchestration as he went to his final assignation with his lady-love.

The finest tenor heard Monday was the heroic character voice of Robert Brubaker. He shone in the secondary role of Malatestino, the youngest and most disagreeable of the three Malatesta siblings. After terrorizing Francesca, he capped a scenery-chewing duet with Gioncotto in Act IV by exiting through a trap door to decapitate an offstage prisoner in the dungeons. He came back carrying the wrapped, bloody head, in a moment that combined the grisliest plot elements of Tosca and Salome.

Mr. Delevan's dark, husky bass matched Gianciotto's black heart and violent, psychotic behavior. He did a memorable slow burn in the Act II battle scene where he shows his character as the type who'd rather solve his marital problems with an axe. This foreshadowed the climactic moment in Act IV when he slaughters his wife and then his brother. Also impressive: bass Philip Horst in the comprimario role of Ostasio, and mezzo Ginger Costa-Jackson as Francesca’s sympathetic slave Smaragdi.

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