Zandonai Francesca da Rimini
Zandonai is a fascinatingly anomalous figure, a fundamentally flawed composer but at times a very impressive and curiously original one. Born in 1883, he was one of the generation of Italian composers who had to decide whether to continue the Puccinian line or to contract one or other of those modernisms that Puccini himself described as ''venereal diseases of music that come from beyond the Alps''. Zandonai did neither, his music is variously described by Italian critics as art nouveau, 'Liberty' (after the London furnishing store) or pre-Raphaelite, and in defining his style some such visual metaphor seems more apt than a recital of the obvious influences upon him of Wagner, Richard Strauss and his teacher Mascagni. It may even be something more than a metaphor: Zandonai was familiar in his youth with the writings of the French symbolist poets (he made settings of several of them) and as late as the 1930s he wrote a substantial orchestral score inspired by the paintings of that Italian cousin of the pre-Raphaelites, Giovanni Segantini.
Another anomaly: at a conference celebrating Zandonai's centenary a few years ago it was repeatedly pointed out that he is, in Italy at least, both familiar and unknown, much performed yet not 'popular'. Francesca da Rimini has been continuously in the Italian repertory since its first performance in 1914 but who, asked one speaker, can whistle any of its tunes? There is an element of truth in this. The first appearance of Paolo, with whom Francesca falls instantly, adulterously and fatedly in love, is quite magical: a tapestry of sumptuous orchestral colour, with ecstatic choral interjections and florid arabesques from a group of exotic obbligato instruments (lute, piffero and viola pomposa)—pre-Raphaelite indeed, and a wonderful image of Paolo's glamour in Francesca's eyes, but memory retains the impression of a richly complex embroidery in which the melodic line is subsidiary to the overall pattern-making. Even the gorgeously beautiful love-duet in Act 3 makes as much of its effect with texture and colour and with fluid declamation as with its moments of lyrical expansion. Elsewhere the vocal lines, the word-setting itself even, can seem disappointing if you are expecting a characteristically Italian texture of opulent vocal melody set in relief by orchestral accompaniment.
Zandonai's hieratic, 'patterned' style (he makes much use of varied repetition and ostinato) is very well suited to evoking the archaic, the ethereal and the bright freshness of the opera's medieval Italian setting, but the story of Paolo and Francesca contains savagery and horror also, especially in D'Annunzio's version (the basis for Zandonai's libretto). D'Annunzio emphasized the sadistic, Salome-like aspects of the plot (there is an almost prurient preoccupation with blood in his text, much talk of dismemberment and deformity), and these are reflected with dismaying fidelity by Zandonai's 'other' manner, a pile-driving use of gestural ostinato that can only be termed brutal. He uses it in the battle scene in Act 2, less to evoke the conflict itself than to emphasize how Francesca's infatuation is intensified by danger and violence, and again in Act 4 where her downfall is plotted with repulsive savagery. More worrying still, it is this latter manner that he uses for what ought to be the culmination of all those lovely pre-Raphaelite scenes: the last meeting of Paolo and Francesca is a shouting-match on two notes, an image of strenuously self-destroying lust that owes more to D'Annunzio's decadent sensationalism than to Dante's pitying tenderness.
These flaws almost pull the opera apart (they require, aside from anything else, two quite different styles of singing), but a strong and lyrical performance can make the pre-Raphaelite Zandonai seem to dominate his repulsive alter ego. This is such a performance, on the whole. Kabaivanska's voice is not so fresh as once it was, but it still has some grace and plenty of vehemence. Matteuzzi begins like a decent, conventional Italian tenor but then demonstrates that he can sing with quiet subtlety, even in the higher register. Manuguerra sings well enough but makes a less interesting villain of Francesca's jealous husband than that admirable character tenor Piero De Palma as the really nasty member of the Malatesta family (he too lusts after Francesca after—typical D'Annunzio touch—she binds up his blinded eye with her kerchief). The other singers and the chorus are adequate (Rosanna Didone's bright, pure soprano is rather more than that) and Maurizio Arena conducts with an obvious feeling for the alluring shot colours and encrusted textures of the score. He is slightly let down by what sounds like a rather under-staffed string section, more seriously by a recording which places the singers very far forward and in dazzlingly bright focus: Francesca da Rimini is not an opera for canary-fanciers who couldn't care less what's happening in the orchestra, but this recording treats it at times as though it were. There are several brief cuts (I cannot pretend that they are damaging ones). The lute called for by Zandonai sounds at times very like a harp and at others very like a banjo; the piffero, as intended, is impersonated by an oboe, and the viola pomposa (otherwise known as the violoncello d'amore) sounds quite splendid. The best pages of Francesca da Rimini have a Burne-Jones-like mystery and radiance to them that neither Zandonai's darker side nor an insensitive recording can obscure.R1 '8808001'