We decided to see Francesca da Rimini because the better half is a history buff, and couldn’t resist the idea of an opera inspired by a story from Dante’s Inferno that had been the basis of a play by d’Annunzio. Also we were trying to get a few more operas in before the end of season at the Met. Due to our habit becoming costly, we decided to forgo our usual seating choice (balcony) and go for the cheap-seats in the family circle. The sound was fine, and we could see everything, even if we couldn’t make out facial expressions without opera glasses. (A small investment in binoculars could save you a lot on opera tickets.)
It was the final performance (3/22/13) and too many seats were empty, which is a shame because Eva-Maria Westbroek and Marcello Giordani were outstanding, as were just about all the singers that night.
It’s understandable, however, why it’s not a big draw, and hadn’t been performed at the Met in many years. The story has all the drama (and melodrama) that makes a good opera. The lead soprano’s role is a meaty one. But you won’t walk away humming. There are no melodic arias that will live inside your head. It’s not exactly subtle either, and the orchestration didn’t help. The horns were so loud, at times they seemed to be competing with rather than accompanying the singers. (This was most definitely NOT the singers’ fault.) The ominous drums reminded us of thriller movie soundtracks that telegraph all the action; Jaws comes to mind.
The setting is early 14th century Italy. The first act is slow but pretty. In the house of the Polentani, Francesca and her ladies await the arrival of Giovanni Malatesta who is to be her husband, securing peace between two ruling families. She’s unaware that Giovanni is deformed, and so her brother has arranged for Giovanni’s handsome brother to show up pretending to be her groom to get her to go along. Paolo (Mr. Handsome) doesn’t arrive till the end of the act, and the two lovers don’t say (or sing) a word, but we know from gestures, and deeply romantic music, that they have fallen in love.
Act II opens in the midst of a battle, with the Malatesta protecting their castle. There’s Paolo declaring his love and willingness to die in battle for Francesca, who for some reason is up with him in a battle turret where she has absolutely no business wandering around, but that’s opera. There’s also our first sighting of her husband, Gianni, and a third brother. The act ends with a really scary contraption being hauled out onto the stage. We think it was supposed to be giant caldron for boiling up your enemies. This is based on Gianni singing about how they are going to really stomp on them, but later there’s a thing about a prisoner they’re keeping around to torture, so who knows what it’s for. Maybe it was leftover from some other production. The caldron-thing has horns and eyes shooting flames. It’s like something they might pull out on Game of Thrones, and definitely over-the-top. The whole act might have made more sense in the original German, if you get my drift. If you don’t, I mean it was Wagnerian, which might be fine if you like that sort of thing. We found the change in tone from the first act jarring.
Act III brings us back to the soap operatics of her love for Paolo, and also the complication not only of her husband, but of her other brother-in-law who also wants her, knows about her and Paolo, and may tell her husband, or may poison her husband. Either way, he’s trouble. There’s also a lot of talk amongst Francesca and her ladies about their favorite soap opera – Arthurian legends, particularly Lancelot and Guinevere, so you know where that’s heading even if you don’t read the program notes.
Act four is the logical outcome of Act III – a tragic ending.
We liked the emotional/romantic/passionate stuff. You know, like in Italian opera. We had trouble with the epic/warrior stuff – musically and dramatically and the sets. Per the program notes, the musical influences were intentional, and with the libretto and the sets worked to paint the brutality or maybe brutishness of the Maletesta, and to present the world that Francesca is really living in, as opposed to the romantic tales that she, like Madame Bovary, are led astray by, so maybe it works on its own terms, just not completely for us.