Monday 8 February 2016

Guilty pleasures - Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini from Freiburg

Riccardo Zandonai - Francesca da Rimini
Zandonai Francesca da Rimini; Christina Vasileva, Martin Muhle, Juan Orazco, Adriano Graziani, Theater Freiburg, Fabrice Bollon; CPO
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Jan 30 2016
Star rating: 4.0

Zandonai's highly perfumed hokum gets an impressive and highly seductive outing in Freiburg

Riccardo Zandonai is one of the nearly-men of 20th century Italian opera, his opera Francesca da Rimini has clung on to the edge of the repertoire, most notably in Italy though there was a production at the New York Met in the 1980's. This new disc comes not from Italy but from Germany and is based on performances at Theater Freiburg under the theatre's musical director Fabrice Bollon. The cast includes Christina Vasileva as Francesca, Martin Muhle as Paolo, Juan Orozco as Gianciotto and Adriano Graziani as Malatestino. With Fabrice Bollon conducting the Freiburger Kammerchor, Opern- und Extrachor des Theater Freiburg, Vokalensemble der Hochschule fur Musik Freiburg and Philharmonisches Orchester Freiburg on the CPO label.

Zandonai is one of a group of post-Verismo composers in Italy searching for a 20th century style and the combination of orchestral writing and taxing vocal writing links the piece to Montemezzi's L'amore dei tre re and La nave, and Wolf-Ferrari's I gioielli della Madonna. The eagle eyed will realise that this is pure Opera Holland Park territory, and in fact the company performed Zandonai's opera Francesca da Rimini in 2010.

The problem with these operas is that the works tend to combine rich orchestral writing which pays full allegiance to the 20th century developments in opera with lyrical dramatic Italianate writing for voices which results in taxing vocal parts. The leads in Zandonai's opera require sturdy spinto voices which are capable of great tenderness too, the sort of Italianate voice which does not grow on trees. (And any casting director's heart must sink at the requirement to find a tenor who can not only sing Paolo but be spectacularly beautiful on stage too!). It is to Theater Freiburg's credit that they have not only provided us with a good modern recording of Zandonai's opera uncut but that they have managed to cast such a fine quartet of voices in the leads, with not a weak link and a great deal of idiomatic singing.

The story is based on Gabriele D'Annunzio's steamy drama which was premiered in 1901, you could imagine it working as a symbolist work a la Debussy, or a grand neo-Meyerbeerian historical epic (the plot includes a siege of the castle in which the action takes place). But Tito Ricordi's libretto concentrates on the four protagonists, Francesca da Rimini (Christina Vasileva), her husband Gianciotto (Martin Muhle) who is ugly, his brother Paolo 'the beautiful' (Juan Orozco) who impersonates his brother in the wooing thus deceiving Francesca, and the third brother the vicious Malatestino (Adriano Graziani). Of course Francesca falls in love with Paolo, they have an illicit relationship and end up being killed by Gianciotto.

The problem with the libretto is that it hardly examines the protagonists actions or reasons. The characters are archetypes, and we never find out about their inner life and Zandonai's music takes the text at face value where a better composer would have given us a subtle (or not so subtle, think Richard Strauss's Salome and Elektra) examination of Francesca and Paolo's interior life.

What surprises, listening to this recording, is loveliness and fascination of Zandonai's writing in the orchestra. He sets the text as free flowing arioso dialogue in a style which was prevalent in Italy at the time; Montemezzi's operas set plays direct with no intervening librettist. There are lyric moments, but it is the way that Montemezzi uses the combination of voices and orchestra that strikes you. There are two scenes in Francesca's rooms so that we get some wonderful all female moments.

The performers play the piece to the hilt so that when Paolo and Francesca read about Lancelot and Guinevere and kiss, we are seduced by the moment and really believe the steamy love scene (only a kiss in the text, but a great deal more in the orchestral score).

Bulgarian soprano Christina Vasileva brings an attractive Caballe like edge to her voice and is capable of both singing quietly and bringing a lovely luxuriant touch to the vocal writing. Vasileva's voice does not really open up at the top when she presses it so that more taxingly written passages veer a little towards hardness, but it is never unpleasant and over all she most impressive, making Francesca quite believable. Vasileva is certainly a singer I would love to encounter in the theatre.

As her lover Paolo, German-Brazilian tenor Martin Mühle delivers with solid technique and strong spinto tone. Like Vasileva he is a trifle pressed at the top in the more dramatic passages, but he and she make a terrific team and their duets really make steam come out of the speakers.

The Welsh-Italian tenor Adriana Graziani (Buxton Festival's Edgardo in their recent Lucia di Lammermoor) makes a terrific Malatestino ('the one-eyed'), giving a real edge to his voice to bring out this character's wily nastiness. Juan Orozco makes a strong Gianciotto (who is deformed), sounding suitably unpleasant.

In fact none of the men seem to be admirable specimens, and Paolo's outer beauty is compromised not only by his willingness to cuckold his brother (in whose castle he is living), but to go on a fearsome killing spree in Act Two.

Fabrice Bollon and the orchestra bring out the real beauties of the score, with some highly colourful passages which evoke Wagner, Strauss and early Schoenberg melded into a strangely  perfumed Italian world.

Having now heard both Wolf-Ferrari's I gioielli della Madonna (twice) and Montemezzi's L'amore dei tre Re in the theatre, and now Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini on disc, I find remain fascinated by this curious streak of operatic history. Next off, I want to hear Montemezzi's La nave!

I think Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini is an ideal recording opera, it gives us the chance to enjoy the luxury sound world without worrying too much about the dramaturgy. And thanks to Fabrice Bollon an his cast we can enjoy this guilty pleasure to the hilt.

Riccardo Zandonai (1883-1944) - Francesca da Rimini (1914) [133.26]
Francesca - Christina Vasileva (soprano)
Paolo il Bello - Martin Mühle (tenor)
Gianciatto - Juan Orozco (bass)
Malatestino dall'occhio - Adriano Graziani (tenor)
Garsenda - Kim-Lillian Strebel (soprano)
Biancofiore - Bénédicte Tauran (soprano)
Adonella - Sally Wilson (mezzo-soprano)
Altichiara - Marija Jokovic (mezzo-soprano)
Freiburger Kammerchor
Freiburg Theatre Opera Choir
Freiburg Hochschule für Musik Vokalensemble
Freiburg Philharmonic Orchestra
Fabrice Bollon (conductor)
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