When going to the opera, I am often asked: “How any times have you seen this before?” Often, people react with dismay when I note that I may have seen something five or more times and sometimes all in one season. What my friends and contemporaries fail to experience is that no show is exactly the same, and knowing that the human element will be at the core of the performing art keeps me coming back for that element of surprise and inspiration.
Last night was an exception to the rule. I went to see an opera I have only heard a recording of and most people had little or nothing to say about the composer and the plot. However, the strength of the cast and the incredible staging of a largely unknown work drew the crowds that arrived and stayed through the performance.
Francesca di Rimini is a story of a marriage without love and a love that cannot be. The drama takes place in Italy of the 14th Century in the midst of wars between the Ghibellines and the Guelphs, the families fighting to control Italy. Francesca is married off into the Malatesta family to Gianciotto: the oldest, deformed, and brute brother. However, she meets the youngest, Paolo, who is young, well read, and stunning. They develop an instant and forbidden love. One night, Paolo comes to her room to read the story of Guinevere and Lancelot and at that point they can no longer hold back their passion. As their forbidden love grows, so do the urges of Malatestino, the youngest of the brothers. He makes passes at Francesca, even offering to poison her husband to have her. When he is rebuffed, Malatestino informs Gianciotto of the affair, which leads to a tragic close to the epic work.
While this was not a new production, the scale, beauty, and enormity of it all deserves praise. The sets were simply incredible — carrying the magnitudes and scales of castles and the truest feelings of war and horror. Costumes too were incredibly well done for the period and worked well with the characters they were designed for.
The music of Riccardo Zandonai is a great triumph of romanticism. The 39th performance of Francesca di Rimini was led by the energetic Marco Armiliato. His control of the performance and of the music — as always — was inspiring. The orchestra and the Metropolitan Opera House Choir were strong and delivered another solid performance. Eva-Maria Westbroek was extraordinary in the title role. Having to perform for the entirety of the opera with no break in sight she showed what it takes to be a star: talent, perseverance, and amazing illusion of grace and ease. Robert Brubaker made for an excellent Malatestino with his great voice, incredible stage presence, and incredible acting skill. He left an uneasy feeling after every scene, an indication of the treachery that he was capable of. Ark Delavan was bold and remarkable.
Now to the human element in the grand art I mentioned in the beginning. I must admit, that I thought that Marcello Giordani’s best days were behind us. Having seen him flop as Cavaradossi in London and deliver less than inspiring performance earlier this year in Les Troyens. However, this night he sang the way he used to years ago. His voice filled the auditorium and every word, note, and tone was crisp and well defined. It is hard to predict if this is a permanent feature and if the once up and coming star is back, but he certainly gave us the gift of music last night, rising over the orchestra with warmth and great skill. Well done sir.
Considering how magnificent last night was, I would rate Francesca di Rimini a must see — before it vanishes off the stage for another 26 years.