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Eric Myers
Opera News, October 2009

Zandonai’s best-known opera has seen many revivals over the past few decades without ever really becoming a repertory staple. Its pounding, pulsating score is full of dramatic tension and vivid orchestration, yet it lacks the melodic staying power that would help qualify it as an audience favorite. It is also a demanding piece to stage, and despite its large cast, it is almost a one-character opera, with a heroine who spends most of her time front and center. This is a work that stands or falls by its soprano.

In this case, she’s Daniela Dessì. With this haunting 2004 Sferisterio Opera Festival staging by Massimo Gasparon, she is given the support of a fine cast, as well as sensitive conducting by Maurizio Barbacini…Her Paolo, Fabio Armiliato, projects the right youthful, impassioned tone and dark-browed intensity…Alberto Mastromarino looks more cuddly than threatening as Francesca’s betrayed husband, Gianciotto, but he sings his lines with an appropriate baritonal snarl. Slovakian tenor L’udovít Ludha, apparently the only non-Italian singer in this idiomatic cast, creates a memorably slimy Malatestino dall’Occhio in the little stage time Zandonai allots him. Standouts among the smaller roles include soprano Roberta Canzian’s crystal-toned Biancafiore, the elegant Giullare of Domenico Colaianni and the spectral-sounding Angela Masi, who uses her burnished contralto to great effect as Francesca’s slave Smaragdi.

This is virtually an “auteurist” production, in which one man—Massimo Gasparon—is responsible for direction, decor, costumes and even lighting. His unit set, centered upon a bisected Byzantine gold dome with a balustrade supported by Corinthian columns, is restrained yet dazzling, forming an intimate playing space for the drama with ample room at the sides of the stage for choruses of courtiers and soldiers. (One torchlight procession creates a particularly striking effect.)…Gasparon proves himself a director to watch, one who can put a personal stamp on a work without resorting to drastic regie distortions.

Video director Michelangelo Rossi expertly captures Gasparon’s impressive staging, leaving one with the feeling that his camera has missed very few details of this gorgeous production.




Frank Swietek
Video Librarian, September 2009

Paolo and Francesca, the star-crossed adulterous lovers made infamous in Dante’s Inferno, have been the subject of some 30 operas, the best-known being Riccardo Zandonai’s 1914 Francesca da Rimini. While it’s never achieved the status of repertory staple, Francesca da Rimini boasts a score in full-blooded verismo mode (although comparisons to Tristan und Isolde in an accompanying booklet here seem somewhat farfetched, even if the narrative does have a certain lurid, soap-operatic vigor). When nobleman Gianciotto sends his brother, Paolo, to fetch the former’s betrothed, Francesca, the two immediately fall in love. After Malatestino—a malevolent third brother whom Francesca has rejected—finds out about the affair and reveals it to Gianciotto, all ends badly. This performance was taped at the 2004 Sferisterio Opera Festival in Macerata, Italy, which was held in the kind of large outdoor arena that is usually inhospitable to opera. In this case, however, director-designer Massimo Gasparon employs the space skillfully, creating a single, multi-tiered set that admirably focuses the action, while the eye-catching costumes blend in well. Musically, conductor Maurizio Barbacini draws impassioned playing from the orchestra, while Daniela Dessi and Fabio Armiliato are impressive as the doomed lovers. Featuring fluid camerawork and fine sound (with DTS, Dolby Digital 5.1, and PCM stereo options), this is recommended.



Patrick O'Connor
Gramophone, September 2009

A lavish production and splendid singing make for a fascinating Francesca

This is just the sort of work for which a DVD issue is invaluable. One could travel the world and never find oneself in a city where the opera company was putting on Zandonai’s most famous work. Premiered in 1914, it has had distinguished stagings (including one at the New York Met in 1984 with Scotto and Domingo, which is also on DVD from DG), but few and far between.

The tragic story of Francesca, married off against her will to the brutal Giovanni “10 Sciancato” but all the time in love with his younger brother Paolo “il Bello”, is based on D’Annunzio’s play, itself taken from an episode in Dante’s Inferno. The title-role is a great challenge for the soprano—she is on stage for most of the evening. Daniela Dessì, understandably, begins slightly cautiously, but she rises splendidly to the great love duet at the end of Act 3, when the lovers read the story of Lancelot and Guinevere, and find their own passion cannot be denied.

Act 4 has a scene in which Francesca is taunted by the third brother, the scathing Malatestino, who is having a prisoner tortured offstage (shades of Act 2 of Tosca). He eventually exits and returns with the unfortunate victim’s head, wrapped in a cloth. Ludovit Ludha is excellent in this part, as is Fabio Armiliato as Paolo. Alberto Mastromarino as Giovanni gets to hold the stage at the end: having murdered the lovers, he breaks his sword in half.

Massimo Gasparon’s production is satisfyingly old-fashioned, his costumes evoking 14th-century Italy —heaven knows how many metres of brocade and silk were used. The big scene in Act 2, in which a battle is raging around the castle and Francesca refuses to hide but watches from a tower, is a bit difficult to show on the small screen, but the “silent” duet at the end of Act 1, when Francesca sees Paolo for the first time and gives him a rose, is finely achieved. Zandonai’s orchestral effects are fascinating, and Maurizio Barbacini and the archigiana orchestra make the most of them. Coming almost at the end of the age of verismo, Francesca da Rimini seems like a summing-up of all the influences that had weighed on Italian opera, and were ultimately to destroy it. It is a fascinating work. I wouldn’t suggest that any cash-strapped opera house should consider it nowadays—all the more enjoyable then to encounter it on DVD.



Robert Levine
ClassicsToday.com, June 2009

Riccardo Zandonai’s hothouse opera Francesca da Rimini is a series of lush-beyond-belief tableaux and love duets interrupted by scenes of battle, chaos, and violence. It manages to be at once veristic and a reaction against verismo; if it were a painting, it probably would be pre-Raphaelite. We can admire its decadence, its luxuriant orchestration, and its intelligent use of motifs, and we can bask in its embarrassment of over-emotionalism—but when all is said and done, you barely recall a long melodic line from either Francesca or Paolo that defines them as characters. Though at times lovely, the scenes with Francesca and her ladies-in-waiting linger and you wonder at their point. In fact, each scene goes on a bit too long, there is too much conversation and detail, and the perfume the music gives off begins to cloy. Zandonai lacks Puccini’s capacity to touch the heart or Verdi’s aggressive melodic strain.

Still, done well, Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini is a guilty, highly caloric pleasure, and this performance satisfies enough—and the third-act love duet can make you forgive a great deal of filler. Recorded at the Sferisterio Festival, Macerata, in 2004, the production boasts all-of-a-piece sets, costumes, lighting, and direction by Massimo Gasparon. Wisely, no attempt has been made to turn this into anything other than what it is. We get lots of formal posturing—swirling of capes and bowing—on a set that consists of a golden-domed, Byzantine gazebo-like structure with all-purpose balconies. When it opens up there are red marble pillars and gold accoutrements, not to mention a magisterial staircase, which is both useful and attractive. The costumes use acres of orange, green, and gold brocade. We get the point: everything here is monumental, including the emotions.

Daniela Dessi is precisely ripe enough for the role of Francesca. She has nobility, passion, power, and the high notes—and there are tons of them. You wish for more shaded dynamics, however. Her real-life partner, tenor Fabio Armiliato, is the Paolo, and he is better here than I’ve heard him in quite a while. While he also lacks subtlety (save for those few moments, such as the whispered “Francesca!” at the end of Act 3, where he underlines the subtlety so specifically that it draws attention to itself), his ardency never is in doubt and he always sings on key. He looks even more pre-Raphaelite than he has to, by the way, with curly black locks falling around his head.

As Francesca’s cruel, lame husband, Giancotto, baritone Alberto Mastromarino yells his head off impressively; this is one Barbarian you don’t want to mess with. Mastromarino copes well with the wickedly high tessitura and acts up a storm, to boot. As the third brother, the sneaky, one-eyed Malatestino, Ludovit Ludha is superb, his bright, shiny—if not particularly attractive—tenor most welcome, and his attention to the text intelligent.

The ladies-in-waiting, Francesca’s sister Samaritana and the slave Smaragdi, are mostly lovely but can turn a bit squally; at any rate, they look ravishing and “Marzo e giunto”, a song they sing to Francesca in Act 3, is stunning.

Conductor Maurizio Barbacini understands this score perfectly and he brings out all of Zandonai’s exquisite, over-the-top colors. He holds the brutal scenes in Act 2 together and handles the love duets—more than 40 minutes’ worth, by the way—with sensuality and warmth. The picture and camera work are superb, as is the sound, and subtitles are available in all major European languages and Japanese. The only competition on DVD is the 25-year-old Levine-led Scotto/Domingo performance from the Met. It is preferable to this current set, but fans of Dessi will not be disappointed, and there’s room for more than one.



Göran Forsling
MusicWeb International, May 2009

Riccardo Zandonai is one of those Italian opera composers in the wake of Puccini who verges on the border of obscurity but some of his works occasionally appear, at least in Italy. Though he wrote a number of operas it is primarily Francesca da Rimini that is played and it is generally regarded as his best work. At Värmlandsoperan in Karlstad, Sweden I cavaliere di Ekebu was played more than ten years ago. This opera, premiered at La Scala in 1925 under Toscanini, is based on the highly popular novel Gösta Berling’s Saga by Swedish Nobel Prize Winner Selma Lagerlöf and the events take place in the Province of Värmland, thus the connection. I primarily knew Zandonai’s music from a series of 78rpm sides that were set down in 1927 and 1928 in connection with the first Swedish production of the opera in Stockholm to coincide with Ms Lagerlöf’s 70th birthday. It was recorded more than 30 years ago with Fiorenza Cosotto in the central role as the Commander and it seems that also Fedora Barbieri also recorded it. Also Conchita has been set down and Francesca da Rimini has had several recordings, one with Raina Kabaivanska as Francesca. A search on Operabase during the period 2008–2011 gave only one hit for Zandonai: a production of Francesca da Rimini in Trieste in late 2008 with Daniela Dessi and Fabio Armiliato in the leading roles as on the DVDs under review from Macerata.

The opera is based on the renowned Gabriele d’Annunzio’s long verse drama from 1901, which in its turn harked back on Dante and, to some extent, Boccaccio. The libretto for the opera was however written by publisher Tito Ricordi, who bought the rights from the poet for a large sum of money but had to do the heavy job of compressing and simplifying the drama to dimensions that were possible to handle and set to music. He discarded about one fourth altogether and cut out bombasts that were of little avail. The end product was a libretto that, though not free from longueurs, inspired the composer to some highly dramatic scenes as well as a couple of love scenes that are truly beautiful and have some Puccinian atmosphere about them though they lack the melting sweetness of the old master. Zandonai, like Puccini, also seems to be especially inspired by the female voices, not only writing soaring solo cantilenas but atmospheric ensembles and choruses for women. Harmonically the one-time Mascagni pupil is lavishly late romantic, not without some biting dissonant seasoning, something that was further developed in I cavalieri di Ekebu. His instrumentation is possibly his strongest point: varied and colourful.

The story of Francesca da Rimini, which also inspired Tchaikovsky to write his symphonic fantasia Op. 22, takes place in Ravenna and Rimini. Guido, the ruler of Ravenna, has arranged a marriage between his daughter Francesca and the crippled Gianciotto Malatesta. In order not to discourage her she is fooled to believe that she is to marry Gianciotto’s brother, Paolo ‘il bello’. When Francesca sees him she falls at once in love. Her sister Samaritana suspects the truth and advises her not to marry but Francesca insists.

In act II a war is raging between two rivalling parties. Paolo is fighting bravely in a tower and Francesca has joined him. When she believes he has been wounded she takes his head in her hands. When the enemy has been dislodged Gianciotto praises Paolo’s courage and announces that he has been elected to a high position in Florence. All three drink a toast, while all the time Paolo and Francesca keep their eyes riveted upon each other. The third brother, Malatestino, is brought in, wounded in one eye.

In act III Francesca is reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere while her ladies-in-waiting are singing. Paolo, having suddenly returned, comes in. They read the story together and when they reach the point where Lancelot declares his love to Guinevere they stop reading and caress each other passionately.

The one-eyed Malatestino is also in love with Francesca and in the first scene of act IV he tries to beguile her but Francesca rejects him. When Gianciotto comes she complains of his cruelty, having just left to silence a crying prisoner. She leaves and when Malatestino returns Gianciotto rebukes him for his behaviour. Malatestino then reveals that Francesca and Paolo are in love. Gianciotto demands proof and Malatestino asks to wait until night breaks. The second scene plays at night. Francesca is in bed and Paolo comes to her. They embrace and then they hear Gianciotto’s voice outside the door. Paolo tries to escape but fails, the two men fight, Francesca throws herself between them and is being stabbed by Gianciotto who then also kills Paolo.

These cruel proceedings are carried out on the enormous out-door stage at Macerata before an audience of 4,500 people. The stage picture is dominated by a large dome, around and within which the action takes place. Up to and in the dome there are wide staircases and there is a lot of walking and running up and down these. The dome is beautifully lit and decorated and together with the lavish costume we get a fairly realistic picture of medieval upper class milieu. The outdoor circumstances invites larger-than-life acting and the video director has wisely chosen to avoid intrusive close-ups. Still there is a lot of old-fashioned outstretched arms and waving of hands to express strong feelings. In the long run this becomes rather annoying and lessens the impact of the central drama. After a rather long-winded first act with slow build-up of tension, the remaining acts are more closely knit and the unfolding of the drama—and the love story—is thrilling. Rarely do we encounter such impassioned kisses and embraces as between Francesca and Paolo, but moralists should know that this is fully legitimate since Daniela Dessi and Fabio Armiliato are real-life partners.

Vocally Armiliato is on near top form and he impresses especially through his nuanced lyric singing but also in the heroic/dramatic music even though he sometimes presses too hard. One reason is no doubt the orchestral texture, which can be very thick and impenetrable. Daniela Dessi makes an impressive reading of Francesca’s role, also finding the delicate nuances, but her tone is prone to be strident at fortissimo. Alberto Mastromarino renders Gianciotto probably more sympathetic than he really is through his warm singing, while Ludovit Ludha, visually and vocally, presents a frightening third brother. Among the many minor roles Giacinda Nicotra is an expressive but rather squally Samaritana but Angela Masi as the slave girl Smaragdi impresses greatly with her smooth, deep contralto. The sound is a bit variable as so often on outdoor recordings but in the main it works well and the production as a whole gives a more than decent picture of this relative rarity.






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