Like Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, the tale of Francesca da Rimini can be traced back to Dante’s Inferno. The illicit love that in 13th Century Italy condemned the unfortunate lovers to eternity in Hell’s second circle serves as material for mushily-ripe romantic tragedy for the early twentieth century giovane scuola movement.
Riccardo Zandonai wrote his Francesca da Rimini, his only notable success, in 1914 and what a strange, multi-coloured, hysterical mix it is, drawing on all the obvious musical influences of the time.
Martin Lloyd-Evans, who directed Montemezzi’s not dissimilar L’amore dei tre Re with great panache three years ago, returns, teamed again with designer Jamie Vartan and tenor Julian Gavin. It’s a bumpier ride this time.
Vartan provides us with a simple set, castle walls which constantly split and swirl, and he does well not to load the stage with anything extraneous to this shell-like structure.
Gavin proves himself again as a brilliantly ringing hero and the other half of a handsome couple is Australian soprano Cheryl Barker, a quite extraordinarily beautiful stage presence, whose Francesca is impressively impassive and exquisitely sung.
Their meeting follows what must be one of the biggest lead-ups to an entrance outside of Der Rosenkavalier. The lingering moment when the lovers’ eyes meet is held for what seems forever, against a background of shimmering loveliness and the act ends without a word spoken between them.
Battle scenes are difficult to pull off in opera (come to think of it, how many are there?) and Lloyd-Evans’ attempt, a stylised device with flaming arrows hovering back and forth, doesn’t quite work. It’s not helped by an ill assortment of male chorus with knitted chain mail and swords in belt that veers horribly in the direction of The Art of Coarse Acting.
Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts is a splendid singer and he belts out his part, the malevolent younger brother Maletestino, with characteristic gusto but he cuts a rather ridiculous figure, puking buckets of blood and staggering around with his eye dribbling down his cheek. His later scene with Jeffrey Black’s realistically face-disfigured and Richard III limping Giancotto, borders on the cartoonish.
There’s a fine quartet of young beauties in Madeleine Shaw, Anna Carrington, Gail Pearson and Anna Leese, the latter particularly catching the eye and ear.
One of Opera Holland Park’s great strengths is always the City of London Sinfonia and here, under Phillip Thomas, they roar through Zandonai’s colourful score with thunderous aplomb.
Don’t be misled by my star rating (which is just an attempt at objective assessment). I’d heartily recommend a visit to Francesca da Rimini, particularly if, like me, you tire of the same batch of operas being churned out with too great frequency.
Although there is too much of what gives opera a bad name in both opera and production, this is a strangely engaging evening. There are huge holes in the story (from love at first sight to unhappily married to another man in the twinkling of an eye and not a word of explanation) but much of the music both excites and moves.
Whether you’ve managed to snap up one of OHP’s free tickets for this show or not, Zandonai’s multifarious glories won’t disappoint.