MET delivers doomed romance

‘Francesa da Rimini’ to play

Actors rehearse a scene from Act II of Zandonai’s “Francesca da Rimini” on Feb. 26 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The opera will be simulcast Saturday in Durango. Enlarge photo

Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Actors rehearse a scene from Act II of Zandonai’s “Francesca da Rimini” on Feb. 26 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The opera will be simulcast Saturday in Durango.

Nothing good can happen in a family with a name like Malatesta. Who would be foolish enough to marry into such a hornet’s nest?

The answer is Francesca da Rimini, the heroine of the next The MET: Live in HD transmission. Riccardo Zandonai’s opera of the same name will be staged at 10 a.m. Saturday. The Metropolitan Opera is reviving its spectacular 1984 production with stage mechanics for a war in Act II that will look as contemporary as last week’s staging of “Parsifal.”

The original Met premiere of “Francesca” took place in 1916, a mere two years after the world premiere in Turin’s Teatro Regio.

But none of that is as interesting as the story’s pedigree.

“Francesca da Rimini” is Riccardo Zandonai’s contribution to the operatic literature of doomed love. Working with librettist Tito Ricordi at the turn of the 20th century, the creative team latched onto a popular Italian melodrama written by Gabriele D’Annunzio.

D’Annunzio’s “Francesca da Rimini” was an old–fashioned tear jerker, quite the opposite of the astringent European Verismo Movement that led the avant garde at the time. A flamboyant character himself, D’Annunzio was a journalist, poet, playwright and admirer of Friedrich Nietzsche. The playwright was prolific on the page and in the bedroom. Outside his own marriage, he pursued numerable actresses and wrote his version of the Francesca-Paolo story for Eleanor Duse in 1901. Italian audiences, in particular, loved it, and the team of Zandonai-Ricordi wisely decided to create an operatic version.

Both play and opera draw inspiration from Italy’s great epic poet, Dante. In Volume I, Circle 2 of The Divine Comedy, there’s a brief episode at the very beginning of the journey down into the Inferno. Dante and his guide, the Roman poet Virgil, are barely three steps into Hell when they encounter their first group of sinners. Famous characters like Cleopatra, Dido and our pair of lovers, Francesca and Paolo, are there because they indulged in the least of the seven capital sins – lust.

In a mere 22 lines, Francesca tells her story. She begins: “There is no greater grief than to recall a bygone happiness in present misery.”

Twenty-two lines!

It took Dante’s countryman, Giovanni Boccaccio to expand on the story in The Decameron. That’s where you get the details, the arranged marriage, the deceit and the downfall. Together, these two masterpieces have provided the world with enough material for plays, operas and movies about the love-lust dilemma and its consequences.

Zandonai’s opera tells the story in four acts. It begins as Francesca is about to enter a political marriage. Her brother Ostasio tricks her into believing the handsome Paolo Malatesta will be her husband. By Act II, she’s learned her husband is no other than the older brother, the deformed, rude and crude Gianciotto. She also learns the Malatestas are involved in a bloody war. By Act III, Francesca and Paolo realize their true love and passion blooms. Thanks to another brother, the young Malatestino, the lovers are exposed and the rude, crude Gianciotto has his revenge. It’s all in Boccaccio, in D’Annunzio, and Zandonai.

“Francesca da Rimini” may be a second tier opera in the greater scheme of things, but the music is beautiful and resplendent, with echoes of Wagner.

It’s Zandonai’s one true claim to fame.

The production starts early because of the almost four-hour running time. Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, artist and critic.