Francesca da Rimini at Teatro alla Scala
Francesca da Rimini, is a masterpiece that returns to Teatro alla Scala after almost 60 years. Inspired by Dante’s literature, this opera in four acts was composed by Riccardo Zandonai, with a libretto by Tito Ricordi, after the play written by Gabriele d’Annunzio. The first representation at the Milanese Opera House was in 1916 and was performed in several other occasions, the last one dating back to 1959. The 2018 comeback has Fabio Luisi directing Maria José Siri and Marcelo Puente in a new production by David Pountney, with scenes by Leslie Travers and costumes by Marie-Jeanne Lecca.
The drama is set in Ravenna and Rimini, where Francesca (Maria José Siri) — the daughter of Guido I da Polenta — is to be married to the “crippled” (lo Sciancato) Giovanni (Gabriele Viviani), the son of Malatesta da Verucchio. However, Francesca is introduced to his younger brother, the handsome Paolo (Marcelo Puente), known as “il bello,” and the two fall in love at first sight. But the fate of Francesca and Paolo will be doomed, when she refuses the sexual advances of Malatestino (Luciano Ganci), Giovanni’s youngest brother, who will spitefully reveal their affair to his older sibling.
The tragedy of the star-crossed lovers, intertwines with the struggle for power between those supporting the Papacy (Guelphs) and those backing the Holy Roman Empire (Ghibellines), as well as with the literature read by Paolo and Francesca, about the ill-fated romance between Lancelot and Guinevere.
Fabio Luisi directs his orchestra and performers with impetus and pathos, as sparks fly between soprano from Uruguay Maria José Siri (Francesca) and Argentine tenor Marcelo Puente (Paolo il Bello), whose vocal talents equal their stage presence. Also baritone Gabriele Viviani (Giovanni lo Sciancato) and tenor Luciano Ganci (Malatestino dell’Occhio) dominate the scene with their portentous sonority. The grace of the female singers is utterly enthralling, exemplified by Russian mezzo-soprano Alisa Kolosova (Samaritana), mezzo-soprano Sara Rossini (Biancofiore), soprano Valentina Boi (Garsenda), mezzo-soprano Diana Haller (Altichiara), mezzo-soprano Alessia Nadin (Adonella) and mezzo-soprano Idunnu Münch (Smargdi la schiava). The rest of the male cast does not falter in the storytelling of Zandonai’s oeuvre, as the lyrical tale is enriched by the voices of tenor Matteo Desole (Ser Toldo Berardengo), bass Ashley David Prewett (Ostasio), bass Elia Fabbian (Il Giullare), tenor Hun Kim (Il Balestriere/Un Prigioniero), baritone Lasha Sesitashvili (Il Torrigiano).
Zanodai’s work — being based on the eponymous drama written by D’Annunzio for his muse and lover Eleonora Duse — strongly reflects the two things the poet valued the most: women and war. This is exactly what inspired the British theatre and opera director for the staging of Francesca da Rimini. The phantasmagorical scenery is the most powerful element of the mise-en-scène, as David Pountney coalesces Pre-Raphaelite etherealness, with the Roman Empire’s libertinism, along with references to the Italian glorification of First World War militarism.
The colossal set design encompasses a cylindrical structure that welcomes Francesca’s room, inhabited by a white female statue that is six meters tall. This large woman-bust-sculpture dominates the stage, as her initial candid appearance will end up perforated by the spears of war and destruction, also to mirror Francesca’s violation. Even D’Annunzio’s biplane will impose on this figure, to allude to the enterprises of the Vate. A humungous book symbolizes the belletristic chemistry between Paolo and Francesca, that will ultimately serve as bed where they consume their passion until their very last breath. Whilst a structure, equipped with naval guns, representing the Tower of the Malatesta, epitomizes the zenith of the fight between the Guelphs and Ghibellines, as much as the brutality that weighs upon the unfortunate lovers.
This representation of Francesca da Rimini, blends D’Annunzio’s hyper-sensual language with Zandonai’s lush sonorities. It is all enriched by David Pountney’s poetical touch, with artistic references to Edward Burne-Jones and Lawrence Alma-Tadema. The idyllic atmosphere, adorned with flowers and cologne, brilliantly juxtaposes with decadent style elements and fantasies of Epicurean erotism. Within this historical melange, Pountney includes the ideals of the Middle Ages, belonging to the original tale: round table knights and troubadours illustrate the leisure of the nobility and the monstrosity of combat.
The legend of Paolo and Francesca is a story that thrives through time, as current conflicts around the world still encompass impossible romances. This is a chronicle on the edge of reality, that never withers. Withal the representation of Francesca from Rimini also means opening the path of celebrations for the 700th anniversary of Dante Alighieri’s death.