For several years now, Opera Holland Park's raison d'etre has been to revive neglected rarities of the verismo school of Italian opera. As much as one appreciates their efforts in other repertoire, it's projects like Montemezzi's L'amore dei tre Re and Mascagni's Iris for which they're most important.
And this latest instalment in the series, Riccardo Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini, which runs into August, proves a worthy successor to the earlier efforts. With only a few small reservations, the production is a triumph for the company.
The opera emerges as almost a masterpiece. The music, in particular, turns out to be imaginative, carefully worked out and interesting: each scene seems to have its own sonority or musical hook. The score features a wide palette of colours, which include both individual and ensemble woodwind writing, assigning melodic themes to the cello, the expressive use of percussion and contrasts between spiky and smooth textures. Vocally, the opera stands out from its sisters in the verismo canon because the writing in some scenes has an intimacy and introspection that is less full-on than in other pieces of the same period, though much of the score has a heavy post-Wagnerian orchestration against which the cast has to battle (and which is accountable for the work's neglect). There's a fine pastoral scene in Act 2, complete with folk-song references. And has there ever been a more beautiful example of musical mimesis than the vocally-silent meeting of Francesca and Paolo at the end of Act 1?
If I have a problem with the work, it involves a couple of aspects of the libretto. The plight of Francesca and Paolo, her lover, is beautifully drawn, and the allegories of the Tristan and Isolde and Lancelot and Guinevere stories are highly effective, if not exactly subtle. But for me, the character of Gianciotto – Francesca's disfigured husband – is not drawn with enough sympathy or depth. Similarly, the character of Malatestino is almost pantomimic in his two-dimensional evilness. At times, we're also lacking certain parts of the story: while Zandonai and his librettist, Tito Ricordi, spend considerable periods of the score on scene-setting and couleur locale, they make the story jump between Acts 1 and 2 so that we don't see the moment where Francesca discovers that the man she was led to believe would be her husband is actually destined to be her brother-in-law.
Still, it's a serviceable text, and Martin Lloyd-Evans's production is largely very effective. The action is often stylised, showing how an economy of movement can have greater impact than lots of running about, and Jamie Vartan's claustrophobic rotating sets portray Francesca's emotional imprisonment brilliantly. On the other hand, for me there wasn't enough sense of the wider context of the story, namely the power struggle between the warring Ghibelline and Guelph factions: it could do with a bit more of the tension between large groups that's found in, say, the Boccanegra story. The business than Lloyd-Evans creates with the violin at the start, and the flaming arrows, is also a bit weak, even though the intended symbolism of both is clear enough. But given the resources available, I can't imagine how the opera could have been much better staged in this venue. Conductor Philip Thomas was something of a hero of the occasion, drawing passionate but carefully controlled playing from the City of London Sinfonia, performing Tony Burke's reduction. Given the chances of this orchestration to overwhelm the singers, this was an impressive performance.
All praise to Cheryl Barker's Francesca, an incredibly assured rendition of a near-impossible role. Although I imagine she will become a little more emotionally engaging as the run continues, the vocal performance here reminds us once again of her undying stamina. And in Julian Gavin's excellent Paolo, she has an ideal partner: as usual, his rich tenor and ardent delivery is ideal for this high romantic repertoire. The rest of the cast is a bit of a mixed bag, but Jeffrey Black is in fine voice as Gianciotto and Anna Leese absolutely outstanding (and underused) as Biancofiore. Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts's Malatestino is better sung than acted. But on the whole, the ensemble values are strong, and with a committed performance from the chorus this is surely an unmissable opportunity to see a sadly neglected jewel from the verismo repertoire.
Listen to OHP's podcast on Francesca da Rimini here: http://www.rbkc.gov.uk/subsites/operahollandparkpodcasts.aspx