The idea of writing an opera about Francesca da Rimini was suggested to Rachmaninoff by Modest Tchaikovsky, brother of the more famous Pytor Illych Tchaikovsky whose orchestral work based on the same Dante passage is perhaps better known. Originally conceived as a full-length work with a libretto by Modest Tchaikovsky, its genesis was interrupted when Rachmaninoff was appointed conductor at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow and saw the opportunity to put on another opera he had started work on, The Miserly Knight. As The Miserly Knight was a one-act opera, Rachmaninoff needed to present a piece of similar length alongside it, to form a double bill.
Accordingly, the original plans for Francesca da Rimini were dramatically scaled down in order to allow it to perform this function. Originally, the role of Lanceotto was intended for the great Fyodor Chaliapin, which naturally led to the inclusion of more music and text for this character than there otherwise might have been, although in the event the role was not sung by Chaliapin. In consequence of these two factors, the resulting work is curiously unbalanced, which possibly explains why staged productions of this opera are few and far between, and this in turn has led to the number of recordings in the catalogue being rather limited. However, operas which do not succeed on the stage can often be enjoyed more easily on disc, and Francesca da Rimini, which has something of the feel of an orchestral tone poem with voices, falls into this category. This recent, high quality recording of the work is therefore most welcome.
In view of the nature of the work, the major plaudits go to Gianandrea Noseda and his orchestra, the BBC Philharmonic. Noseda paces the opera with authority, demonstrating a strong grasp of its overall structure, and skilfully maintaining momentum in spite of the piece's flaws. The rapid shifts in colour, sonority and texture demanded in the score are painted in beautiful detail by Noseda, and his orchestra has the virtuosity to respond with admirable accuracy and sensitivity. Although the recorded sound places the singers very slightly further back than we are used to, it helps to bring out the orchestral nuances a great deal, and the voices do not suffer for it.
The Chaliapin role is assumed by Sergey Murzaev, actually a baritone whose roles according to the sleeve notes centre on Verdi. All his experience as Iago and Macbeth shines through in his interpretation of Lanceotto where he employs a sinuous line and a thrilling top to great effect. One wonders, in fact, how the great Russian bass would have fared in the tessitura of this role, which seems to fit Murzaev like a glove. If we are to hear a disproportionate amount from this character, it is most welcome in the present case.
Although all of the singing is strong, the real delight is Svetla Vassileva, who takes the title role. Completely unknown to me until now, her beautifully free and unencumbered voice recalls the young Freni in terms of colour and Fach. In her lengthy duet with Paolo she is ravishing, capable of the most intimate pianissimo but also riding the whole orchestra with ease. Francesca's forbidden lover is sung by Misha Didyk, who sings with ardent urgency, and although his voice is not the most beautiful or entirely free of constriction, he is certainly impressive in this taxing role.
The high-quality contribution of the BBC Singers is also a significant selling point of this recording. The sonority they create in the closing section of the piece, where they repeat the disembodied wail of tormented souls and reiterate the line 'There is no greater sorrow than to recall happy times in misery', makes for a thrilling conclusion to this fine account of the score.
By John Woods