Jernigan's Opera Journal

by Charles Jernigan
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Saverio Mercadante's Francesca da  Rimini:
A World Premiere

August 5, 2016

The theme of this year's Festival della Valle D'Itria, in Martina Franca, in the Puglia region of Italy, is Eros and Dionysus.  As usual, the choice of operas reflects the baroque and bel canto periods, and emphasizes composers who came from this region, or whose careers were centered in southern Italy.  And also as usual, the operas are mostly unknown works.  One was even the world premiere of an opera written in 1830, but never performed, even in its own day, and thereby hangs a tale. 

Saverio Mercadante, who was born in nearby Altamura, had a long career composing operas, many of them very successful, although for posterity he has always been in the shadow of first, Rossini, later Donizetti and finally of Verdi.  Many scholars feel that he is the link between the bel canto tradition of the early nineteenth century and Verdi.  Long before Verdi wrote Un ballo in maschera, for instance, Mercadante had written Il reggente on the same story.

Mercadante studied at the Naples Conservatory, and made his professional debut there in 1819; his first great success was the comic opera Elisa e Claudio, which was written for La Scala a couple of years later.  From that point on he pursued an international career, writing several operas for Vienna as well as for theaters all  over Italy.  All of his early works were strongly influenced by Rossini--it was almost impossible to escape him if an opera composer wanted success in those years.  Elisa e Claudio was very popular, and was staged abroad--in Germany and London, and even  New York in 1832.  In 1826 Mercadante left Italy and went to Spain as Director of Italian Opera at the Teatro Principe, where he produced several Rossini operas as well as works of his own.   While there, he wrote I due Figaro, but it was not staged until 1835 (in Madrid).  Riccardo Muti successfully revived this opera recently and made a recording; it was also revived in New York.  After a short time back in Italy (with operas for Turin and Milan's La Scala), Mercadante returned to the Iberian Peninsula and composed several operas for Lisbon and Cadiz (including Don Chisciotte alle nozze di Gamaccio, revived several years ago at Bad Wildbad and also recorded).  In Madrid, things did not go well, for it was there that he wrote the opera under discussion here, Francesca da Rimini, which was never staged.  The reasons for the completed opera remaining unproduced are hazy, but most scholars feel that the project was torpedoed by a prima donna--Adelaide Tosi--who had it in for Mercadante.  In Italy, she and Mercadante had been lovers and she accompanied him to Spain, but her voice was in a serious state of decline.  According to Mercadante, Tosi started "spreading poison" about all  manner of colleagues with Mercadante at the forefront, perhaps to deflect attention from her failings.   Her influence in the madrilene theater world seems to have nixed the planned production of Francesca in Madrid, and Mercadante, disgruntled, traveled back to Italy with the score in his suitcase.

In Milan, he once again completed a contract to stage the work, this time at La Scala, but this plan too was torpedoed, principally because the Intendant changed the terms of his financial offer to Mercadante's disadvantage, but also because of another prima donna's influence.  This time the lady in question was Giuditta Pasta, the great singer who premiered Bellini's Norma at La Scala in 1830.  If the opera had gone on, Pasta would have sung the pants role of the romantic hero, Paolo, but evidently she did not like the idea that she would play second fiddle to the soprano Francesca.  The contract with La Scala was annulled.  Disgusted again, Mercadante went to Rome and wrote Zaira. Francesca da Rimini was shelved, never to be heard from again--until now.

Even in our time, when new interest in Mercadante's works has spurred scholars to search out the score of Francesca, production of the work has suffered delays.  It was announced a few years ago for the Wexford Festival in Ireland, but mysteriously disappeared from the program between the time of the announcement and the production.  Only now has this massive opera finally found its voice.   The world premiere of Mercadante's Francesca da Rimini took place on July 30, 2016, in the courtyard of the Ducal Palace in Martina Franca, only 186 years late.  The good news is that it was worth the wait.

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The story comes ultimately from Dante's Inferno, where the immortal lovers are blown around the second circle of hell by an infernal wind which represents the passion which incessantly drove them to lust and adultery.  There really was a Francesca, the daughter of Guido da Polenta from Ravenna.  For political reasons she was married to Lanciotto, a warlord of Rimini without even seeing him--they were married by proxy while Lanciotto was off fighting and his younger brother Paolo stood in for him at the wedding ceremony.  That was a mistake, since Francesca fell in love with handsome Paolo (Paolo il bello), and one night her husband came home unexpectedly, caught the couple in flagrante delicto, and killed them both on the spot.  In the Inferno, Francesca explains to Dante's Pilgrim how they came to their passionate desire; one day, alone, they read the story of Lancelot and Guinevere (King Arthur's wife), and how they too were driven to passion.  "To one line alone we yielded," she says, "It was when we read about those lips being kissed by such a famous lover that,

        la bocca mi baciÚ, tutto tremante
        (he kissed my lips and trembled as he did).

For Dante, lust is a sin wherein human reason is dominated by desire or the emotions.   Yielding to the emotions leads inevitably to disaster, but the character of Francesca is so appealing, so beautiful and she speaks in such wonderful poetic language that Dante--who is a poet after all-- is overcome and faints hearing of her sad plight.  That is, he loses his reason when he is overcome by his emotions.  He has a lot to learn before he is ready for Paradise.

When the nineteenth century romantics got hold of Dante, it was inevitable that they would find the sad story of Francesca and Paolo irresistible, not as a lesson about the evils of lust, but as a tale of romantic love thwarted by the strictures of a society where marriage is based on political alliances rather than love, like those other famous medieval lovers, Tristan and Isolde and Romeo and Juliet.  The libretto was directly based on an early nineteenth century drama by Silvio Pellico, which changed some aspects of the story as presented by Dante.  Felice Romani, the librettist, adjusted the story further to fit the operatic structure of the time so that each of the three main  characters (Francesca, Paolo and his brother Lanciotto) gets a major aria with cabaletta in each of the two acts.  Further, there are duets, trios and a great concertato finale at the end of Act I.

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It is, for the most part, an excellent, taut libretto, although the second act goes on too long in order to give a chance for the three main principals to have a big aria.  Logically it should end when Lanciotto gives the lovers the option of suicide, but just as Paolo is about to stab himself, Francesca's father rushes in with his men to free them.  Later another confrontation with Lanciotto occurs, and when the doomed lovers finally die, Francesca intentionally runs onto Paolo's dagger and he stabs himself; the aggrieved husband does not kill them.  The tragedy is  in fact universal--Lanciotto's as well as the lovers and also her father's (Guido da Polenta is the fourth character in the opera, a bass). 

The libretto was not written for Mercadante, but for Feliciano Strepponi, the father of Giuseppina Strepponi, Verdi's wife, in 1823.  Thereafter it was well traveled, set by Luigi Carlini in 1825 and eight other composers up to 1857.  Mercadante's libretto used the basic Romani text, but with several changes by an unknown collaborator, or by Mercadante himself.

Musically, the opera is going to excite anyone who loves  bel canto singing.  A lot of it is very Rossinian, composed for the Madrid audiences which had been driven to a frenzy by the Rossini operas that Mercadante had produced there.  By 1830 Rossini had stopped composing operas, and the style of his late works was quite different from the works of the 1810's.  Thus the Rossinian sections (such as both cabalettas for the mezzo Paolo or the allegro-andante-allegro style of many of the arias and duets) are retrograde--and very exciting.  Even the tradition  of having women sing major roles in travesti was old fashioned by 1830 in Italy (but probably not in Spain).  Thus Mercadante often used an older style that he thought would bring him success in Madrid.  But that is not the whole story.

Listeners who love the romantic, melancholy melodies that one hears so frequently in the operas of Donizetti and Bellini will find a great deal of beautiful music here too, especially the wonderful scene when the reading of the tale of Lancelot and Guinevere bring Francesca and Paolo together, or the gorgeous, sad mezzo aria in Act II, "Se trocondo i giorni miei."    Mercadante's complex orchestration gives a lot of color (tinta) to the piece too.  The harp and English horn (cor anglais) are often used to create feeling, especially in the emotion-laden music for Francesca.

As a lover of bel canto, I was mesmerized by these wonderful pieces, and the wonderful performance that made the music live.  Francesca is relatively early Mercadante, but the Mercadante scholar will find music which forecasts the later "reform" operas that he wrote, that give him his own unique voice, distinct from Donizetti or Rossini.  He was famous as an orchestrator, and was considered superior in that way to Donizetti  and his other contemporaries.  You hear that technique in the instrumental coloring, in the deft writing for the many ensembles and in the beautiful blending of the women's voices, but also in the choruses and strictly instrumental movement.  Consider the long, gorgeous choral passage which opens Act II, "Rapido come al vento" or the part writing in the trio "Cielo a miei voti/gemiti."

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The opera's success in Martina Franca was aided immeasurably by the wonderful production of Pier Luigi Pizzi.  Pizzi left the whole wide stage in the Ducal Palace bare.  Only at both sides of the stage huge black veils, like black sail cloth, hung three stories high and billowed and turned in the wind.  Pizzi was obviously inspired by Dante's imagery of wind in the Inferno.  One might also note references to wind in the libretto, and the wind sounds occasionally pulsing through the orchestration.  Pizzi also designed billowing, diaphanous costumes for principals, chorus and dancers.  The chorus were in black (men) and brilliant white (women), or both, and the lead singers wore bright colors--red for Francesca, blue for Paolo, yellow and black for Lanciotto, and purple for Guido.  There was also a corps de ballet, with choreography by Gheorghe Iancu, Pizzi's long-time collaborator.  Though there is no ballet music per se in the opera there are many passages of orchestral music, and the dancers intervened tastefully to create movement and interest for the eye.  Pizzi is a past master of creating beautiful tableau and he did that here with constant movement--placing and replacing singers and dancers.

All of that does not mean that the production was static or uninvolving from an emotional point of view.  Mr. Pizzi provided a runway around the sides and front of the orchestra which was used liberally by the singers to bring them into intimate involvement with the audience.  When Francesca and Paolo sang their heartbreaking scene, 'reading' to each other the tale of Lancelot and Guinevere, you could almost reach out and touch them; you wanted to shout, "Don't do it!"  So, with the billowing movement of costumes and veils, with the placement and replacement of tableaux, with dance, and with the singing, of course, the opera never flagged.  I might add that Pizzi did it all without recourse to guns, uzis, barbed wire, cell phones or other ubiquitous references to the ugliness of contemporary culture which so often blot the opera productions of our times with clichťs.  I was reminded that there is worth in something purely beautiful for its own sake.  We had recently seen the production of Rameau's Les Indes Galantes in Munich, which used discordant modern dance including break dancing set to baroque dance music.  None of that here!  The dancing was classical ballet, in perfect synchronicity with the music and theater of Mercadante's time, and the production itself was classical, restrained and immensely beautiful.

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The singers were all young, very well rehearsed and very good, particularly at the second performance (we saw the first performance on 30 July and a second one on August 2).  Leonor Bonilla looked exactly like Francesca should--young and vulnerable and appealing.  Vocally, and in her looks, the petite singer reminded me of Cecilia Gasdia in her prime.  Technically, she was utterly splendid, handling the difficult Rossinian coloratura with ease.  Her Paolo was mezzo Aya Wakizono, equally young, equally doomed.  Wakizono's voice is extremely rich, almost a contralto, and she too was the complete mistress of her technique in florid passages.  Tenor Mert SŁngŁ was also very fine in the duties of Lanciotto; he convinced us that he was not a cardboard villain, but a tragic figure too, doomed to love a woman who loves someone else.  Antonio Di Matteo  handled the bass duties of Guido with sonority (and sometimes too loudly);  Mercadante did not give the bass an aria, but he participates in many ensembles.

Along with the eleven dancers of the corps, there were two excellent principal dancers, Letizia Giuliani and Francesco Marzola.  Even Ms. Bonilla danced in one scene, and skillfully too.  Finally there was the large Orchestra Internazionale d'Italia led by Fabio Luisi, the Music Director of the Festival.  Luisi is one of the world's greatest conductors and his commitment to this piece was evident.  He shaped every phrase, brought out every orchestral color, and never allowed the pace to flag.  The 50-person strong Chorus of the "Transylvania" State Philharmonic of Cluj-Napoca (Cornel  Groza, chorus master) was superb too.

I have attended several world premieres of new operas, and I have attended a few first performances in modern times of older operas, but I never thought I would see the world premiere of an opera written 186 years ago.   It was an occasion to be savored, and not just an academic experience.  Our party of five friends agreed that Francesca da Rimini is a work of the first order, that the production was superb and that the singing was first rate.  I can't wait for the DVD.

Charles Jernigan

Published by Opera Pronto for the Colorado Opera Network