Zandonai - Francesca da Rimini

ONP Bastille, Wednesday February 9 2011.

Conductor: Daniel Oren. Production: Giancarlo Del Monaco. Sets: Carlo Centolavigna. Costumes: Maria Filippi. Francesca: Svetla Vassileva. Samaritana: Louise Callinan. Ostasio: Wojtek Smilek. Giovanni Lo Sciancato: George Gagnidze. Paolo Il Bello: Roberto Alagna. Malatestino dall’Occhio: William Joyner. Biancofiore: Grazia Lee. Garsenda: Manuela Bisceglie. Altichiara: Andrea Hill. Adonella: Carol Garcia. La Schiava: Cornelia Oncioiu. Ser Toldo Berardengo: Alexandre Kravets. Il Giullare: Yuri Kissin. Il Torrigiano: Alexandre Duhamel. Orchestra and Chorus of the Opéra National de Paris.

Perhaps there are people who are fond of the corny conventions of what the French call “papa’s opera” in the same way dance fans are fond of the conventions of romantic ballet. The Met has regulars after all. Nicolas Joel, the boss of the Paris Opera, would seem to be one and Giancarlo del Monaco, described by a French critic as “not just conservative but reactionary”* and whom Joel insists on employing, might be another. Del Monaco’s production of Francesca da Rimini is the sort in which people sit sidesaddle, as it were, with one leg stretched out behind and strike poses harking back to silent film. As far as I know, nothing quite so outdated and unconvincing had been seen in Paris since… er… well since Del M’s own equally panned Andrea Chenier last year, which I had the good fortune (so I was told) to miss.

The production focused heavy-handedly on D’Annunzio, with his death mask almost ever-present on a gauze or in low relief among the sets, inspired by his megalomanic villa-cum-museum-cum-mausoleum on the shores of lake Garda.

Act one set a high standard in awfulness, thankfully not quite equalled in the remaining three. If the Little Britain team (i.e. from the UK TV show) had wanted to amuse us with genteel “ladies” in wincingly pretty, pastel, 1900 frocks (think Romanovs in summer) and big hats, prancing (daintily of course) through stiff rose-beds in a garden of dusty, drooping artificial trees, it would have been no different. Acts two to four were set indoors in decors recalling D’Annunzio’s rooms, with high, dark, slick panelling, slender gold mouldings and scrolls atop the pilasters, here all blown up to giant Bastille scale. The battle of Rimini took place in a vast empty hall with golden, art nouveau windows at the rear that slid open for Giovanni Lo Sciancato (in wheelchair) to emerge from the be-statued prow of the Mussolinian cruiser Puglia, actually moored in the poet’s garden, here with spotlight ablaze.

The costumes were an uneasy hodge-podge. By act three, Francesca had gone from “straight” 1900 to art-nouveau mediaeval while her handmaidens looked, as one review remarked, as if they’d escaped from a third-rate pastiche of Botticelli. Paolo il Bello was dressed, as another newspaper put it, “as Merlin the Wizard” throughout, in a blue cape. The bedchamber, littered with bric-à-brac (though by no means so cluttered as D’Annunzio’s own, according to photos) that included, as well as the necessary lectern and busts, oriental lamps and ornaments of all kinds, a rotating Liberty-style statuette of entwined lovers, now had red arched panelling punctuated with squares of late romantic painting. Over the heavily be-pillowed bed was a monumental, Michelangelo Medici Chapel mantelpiece, draped with reclining figures. To keep Francesca amused, the maidens put on a puppet show (I’m not making this up) over a red boudoir screen and actually went so far as to strew rose petals from a lacquer tray, reminding my neighbour, so he said, of La Gran Scena’s drag version of Butterfly. The musicians, who had already looked odd (think Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe, though without naked women) in black tails and top hats in that ghastly act one garden here returned looking even odder in white, as if just off the set of Hello Dolly!

Act four (all these scene changes meant two actual 20-minute intervals plus long pauses between all scenes) started in a blacker version of the bedchamber (no red panels) with bigger, more imperial-Roman bric-à-brac (i.e. big busts) and a huge table with twin peacocks as a centrepiece. Giovanni Lo Sciancato (in wheelchair) and his evil brother started out hamming it up like old-fashioned melodrama villains, but in the event, their fight scene was the one well-managed part of an otherwise acting-free evening and a moment of high drama of the Philip-II-meets-Grand-Inquisitor kind. At last things woke up a bit. Another long pause took us back to the bedchamber for the final, short scene, with the lancing of Francesca and stabbing of Paolo.

The evening included other moments reminiscent, as that fight was, of other operas: the presentation of the rose (in this case a red one in act one), or Tosca, Mario and Scarpia (scene between Francesca and Malatestino with offstage screams). The music was less modern than my pre-performance reading had led me to believe; as if a student of Puccini’s (note the double genitive there) had joined Korngold in Hollywood. I only wish the orchestra had been more in a mood for paroxystic incandescence under Oren (I wasn’t alone in finding them lacklustre; he was booed a bit at the end).

The cast, however, was fantastic, small roles included. Alagna’s voice is now darker, more “corsé” than before, still very supple and wholly distinctive, with the usual great diction. Svetla Vassileva is an amply-voiced soprano, to say the least, but capable of a great deal of nuance, despite what some reviewers said. Gagnidze showed he could be hugely powerful, as did Joyner, and I’d be more than happy to hear both of them again. My neighbour, utterly bored by the staging and not too keen on the music, felt it was a “waste of a good cast.” I was glad to have such a good one for my first hearing of the work; but it‘s true it did occur to me more than once that it would have been nice to hear the same team in those other Italian works the production (indeed the storyline) brought to mind.

*I later read: "Dans l'article de Didier van Moere, on apprend que le digne fils de Mario del Monaco a déclaré 'je ne suis pas conservateur, je suis réactionnaire'." So he said it of himself, apparently.

Comments

  1. and no mention of the stuffed hawk feebly flapping its wings, or the risible Monty Python spear carriers in the battle scene.

    I went to the Sunday matinee and the audience actually applauded the scenery!

    A great shame as the opera is so rarely done and deserved better.

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