Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini at Deutsche Oper

Riccardo Zandonai’s reputation rests almost entirely on his 1914 opera Francesca da Rimini, a work that retains a toehold on the repertoire.  A somewhat overblown romantic tragedy based on a play by Gabriele d’Annunzio, the work would seem an unlikely fit for the stage of the Deutsche Oper Berlin under director Christoph Loy’s forensic eye.  Yet the Deutsche Oper has evinced a fascination for operatic byways, witness its sequence of Meyerbeer productions, whilst Loy has proved highly effective in reviving romantic rarities, witness his powerful production of Weber’s Euryanthe at the Vienna State Opera. And Loy’s last appearance at the Deutsche Oper was for Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane, another late Romantic.

Christoph Loy’s production of Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini debut at the Deutsche Oper Berlin began in 2021 as a live stream without an audience.  Thus the production’s revival this month (with substantially the same cast) was the first performance with a live audience.  We caught the performance on Friday 26 May 2023, conducted by Ivan Repusic, with Eva-Maria Abelein as revival director. Designs were by Johannes Leiacker with costumes by Klaus Bruns. Sara Jakubiak was Francesca with Lexi Hutton as her sister Samaritana and Kyle Miller as her brother Ostasio. Jonathan Tetelman was Paolo with Ivan Inverardi and Charles Workman as his brothers Gianciotto and Malatestino.

Zandonai’s style is lushly romantic, somewhere between verismo (Mascagni was one of his teachers), Massenet (a big influence on the composers of Puccini’s generation) and the inevitable nod to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. But unlike Wagner, Zandonai does not keep his passions under control. If Tristan und Isolde is one long delayed orgasm, then Francesca da Rimini is a who sequence of musical climaxes.

Christoph Loy counteracts this with a deliberately pared back production.  Johannes Leiacker’s sets featured a stage within a stage, allowing things to close off with focus solely on Jakubiak and Tetelman.  This was no grandly period staging (such as the Met’s 1984 production with Renata Scotto); the chorus remained off stage and we only saw Francesca’s ladies in waiting and her husband’s henchmen.  The concentration was on Jakubiak and Tetelman, sometimes they were alone but at other times they seemed oblivious of the world around them, the luxuriant music representing their surging passions.

Another point about the opera: it might be over-blown hokum, but it is beautifully and imaginatively orchestrated with clear knowledge of Debussy.  Unfortunately, Tito Ricordi’s libretto based on d’Annunzio’s play is vastly over-wrought; few characters speak to each other with anything like directness.

Sara Jakubiak and Jonathan Tetelman were simply magnificent as the lovers. Both had the requisite, convincing physicality expected in contemporary stagings (Jakubiak stripped down to her slip and Tetelman was shirtless in their big Act Two scene).  But both had voices that combined fullness of tone, expressive lyricism and the necessary stamina.  Francesca in particular is a huge sing, yet Jakubiak’s performance never felt heroic; she produced oodles of expressive lyriciams, capturing the character’s interior melancholy and her vein of nastiness (this Francesca was far less passive than Zandonai probably expected).  And both she and Tetelman were adept at stillness, as passions surged.

As Paolo, Tetelman both looked and sounded just right, with a dark-toned, baritonal tenor that had a thrilling ease at the top and cut through orchestral textures in exciting ways.  He could be contained, allowing the passion to tamp down, but at the end of Act Two and the end of the opera, it was released in a pair of glorious scenes with Jakubiak.

All the other players are more character roles.  Lexi Hutton was touching in her short scene as Samaritana.  Paolo’s brothers were not physically damaged, but more psychologically so. Ivan Inverardi was Gianciotto was simply and older man, a possessive gang leader with a viciously nasty streak.  Charles Workman’s Malatestino was manipulative, the character well-drawn in his crucial Act Four scene with Jakubiak.

Francesca’s ladies in waiting, Machot Marrero, Elisa Vergier, Arianna Manganello and Karis Tucker, formed a sympathetic backdrop for Jakubiak and came into their own in the lovely song to spring in Act Three.  As Gianciotto’s henchmen, Dean Murphy, Patrick Cooke and Artur Garbas loured magnificently.  Irene Roberts was Francesca’s page, Smaragdi, her given a far more intriguingly equivocal role in the tragedy.

The opening scene of the opera featured a minstrel larking about with the maid servants. But throughout the opera, the minstrel was a constant (silent) presence, perhaps as a doppelganger for Paolo (the two looked not dissimilar) but seemingly as the figure of death as at the end he was beckoning the lovers with his violin.

Under Ivan Repusic the orchestra was in fine form and really brought out the colours, imagination and, yes, sophistication of Zandonai’s orchestral writing.  This wasn’t an everyday evening at the opera, but the production showed that with intelligent direction and fine collaborators, Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini could be far more than a diva vehicle.

Robert Hugill

Riccardo Zandonai: Francesca da Rimini

Francesca – Sara Jakubiak, Samaritana – Lexi Hutton, Ostasio – Kyle Miller, Gianciotto – Ivan Inverardi, Paolo – Jonathan Tetelman, Malatestino – Charles Workman, Blancofiore – Meechot Marrero, Garsenda – Elisa Verzier, Altichiara – Arianna Manganello, Adonella – Karis Tucker, Smaragdi – Irene Roberts, Ser Toldo Berardengo – Thomas Cilluffo, Il Giuliare – Dean Murphy, Il Balestriere – Patrick Cook, Il Tirrigiano – Artur Garbas; Director – Christoph Loy, Conductor – Ivan Repusic, Revival director – Eva-Maria Abelein, Stage design – Johannes Leiacker, Costume design – Klaus Bruns, Lighting – Olaf Winter,

Deutsche Oper, Berlin: Friday 26th May 2023.

ABOVE: May 2021 Deutsche Oper Berlin, Copyright: Monika Rittershaus