Sergei Rachmaninoff - Francesca da Rimini
L'Opéra National de Lorraine, Nancy - 2015
Rani Calderon, Silviu Purcărete, Igor Gnidii, Suren Maksutov, Alexander Vinogradov, Gelena Gaskarova, Evgeny Liberman
Culturebox - 15 February 2015
Francesca da Rimini was composed over a decade after Rachmaninoff's first one-act opera Aleko, but although the composer's approach to opera changed during that period, it still remains more of a lyric-drama than a work driven by narrative or dialogue. Called a 'symphonic opera' by the composer himself, Francesca da Rimini is still very much a mood-oriented piece then, and adapted from an episode from Dante's Inferno, it's very different from the Zandonai opera of the same name based on Gabriele D'Annunzio's play.
Almost a third of the length of the whole work is filled with an extended mood-setting symphonic introduction of low notes and lamenting choruses with only a few lines of singing. The dialogue here too is only to set the scene, Dante led by the ghost of Virgil into the Second Circle of Hell, a place reserved for those who have let lust override reason, whose passion has led them to deceit and murder. Among the souls twisting and writhing in infinite agony are Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini, both murdered by Lancelotto, brother of Paolo, husband of Francesca, after being betrayed by both of them.
Depicting Hell is a challenge as much for the stage director as the composer, but it's one that Silviu Purcărete does just as well as Rachmaninoff. Whether the story of Francesca da Rimini is told in flashback or is actually played out for eternity in Hell, Rachmaninoff's approach is (in contrast to Zandonai) clearly to emphasise the horror rather than the romance, and Purcãrete works according to what can be heard in the highly descriptive and evocative music. There in the Second Circle of Hell, black-robed monk-like figures with full-length skeletons draped over their backs writhe and swirl to the rumbling, crashing percussion and the swirling music score.
Out of the number of the condemned appear Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini, both clutching their own skeletons. Following the opening scene setting, and continuing with a distinct structure of its own, the second part of Rachmaninoff's symphonic opera features an extended monologue by Lancelotto Malatesta who bitterly recounts how he came to murder his wife and brother, correcting the wrong that had been done by both of them. In this monologue we get all the familiar backstory of Francesca's mistake, falling for Paolo's beauty and her shock at the realisation that it is Lancelotto, the deformed Malatesta brother, who is the man she is meant to marry.
The third part of the opera then depicts Francesco and Paolo's downfall, which we already know is going to be duet of death. If you weren't familiar with the story, the music alone would be enough to tell you of the likely outcome, but the sense of menace is further heightened by Paolo's account of the tale of Lancelot and Guinevere to Francesca in Modest Tchaikovsky's libretto. Silviu Purcãrete's direction, taking place in Hell, with skeletons looking on from the surrounding darkness is strikingly effective in this respect too. The romantic tension as Francesca attempts to resists the attraction she feels and her inability to resist Paolo's advances has a distinctly menacing edge then that is further enhanced in this strong production design.
Another reason why you might be forewarned of the outcome comes though the work's usual presentation alongside Rachmaninoff's earlier one-act opera Aleko. The themes are closely related - an unfaithful wife who takes a lover and is killed when the jealous husband discovers the infidelity. Inevitably, a director can make connections between the two works when they are performed together, particularly when the wife and the jealous husband are sung by the same soprano and baritone. That works well here, Alexander Vinogradov strong in both roles as Aleko/Lancelotto, although as with her Zemfira, Francesca is a testing role for Gelena Gaskarova.
Less effective are the direct visual links that the director uses to connect the two works. The hints are there earlier on, Gelena Gaskarova seen initially in the same modern dress as Zemfira, transforming into period costume as Francesca. It works to remind the viewer that the story is an age-old one, that relations between man and woman were ever thus (ensuring a steady stream of penitents in the Second Circle of Hell). Less necessary is the dancing bear (or man in the bear suit) from this production's Aleko (quite what sin of Lust he has committed to end up there is a mystery), and it's not a great surprise to see Aleko's car crash in to this realm at the end as well. The consistency of the approach to the musical performances by conductor Rani Calderon is matched however by Silviu Purcărete's striking visual representation, making this a fine production of these two rarely performed works.
Links: Culturebox, L'Opéra National de Lorraine