Francesca da Rimini, Metropolitan Opera, New York

For all its romantic Sturm und Drang and all its aesthetic ambition, Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini has never been a staple at the Met. It received 11 performances in 1916 and 1917. Then it disappeared until 1984, when it served for a couple of seasons as a showpiece for Renata Scotto. On Monday it returned, sounding vital, much of the time, and looking sentimental, all of the time,

Written in 1914, the tragedy unfolds in quasi-verismo platitudes embellished with lush textures reminiscent of Richard Strauss and nervous vocal lines inspired, no doubt, by Debussy. Tito Ricordi’s infernal libretto, based on D’Annunzio, suggests artificially sweetened Dante. For two acts the score dabbles in busy music that steadfastly avoids grand climaxes. Eventually passion does overcome surface prettiness, but it is both little and late.

The current production, nearly 30 years old, probably seemed passé when it was new. It actually utilises the Met’s lush gold curtain, a frame out of fashion with grim modernist directors. Piero Faggioni’s staging, faithfully resuscitated by David Kneuss, concentrates on would-be realistic rituals within Ezio Frigerio’s ever-picturesque décors. There is no room here for narrative symbolism, no interest in abstraction or interpretive innovation. Also, for reasons unclear, cumulative tension in the short opera is dissipated by three long intermissions.

The musical values, though uneven, reflect laudable dedication to an elusive cause. Marco Armiliato enforces much urgency in the pit, if not much subtlety, and does little to prevent the orchestra from overpowering the singers. Eva-Maria Westbroek exudes warmth and intelligence in the title role, even when her soprano lacks maximum thrust and sensuality. Marcello Giordani sometimes strains his middleweight tenor in the heavyweight outbursts of Paolo yet sustains sympathy. Mark Delavan’s brusque Heldenbariton and equally brusque demeanour command admiration in the villainous clichés of Gianciotto, and Robert Brubaker snivels neatly as his even nastier brother, Malatestino.

Francesca da Rimini may be a second-rate opera, but it remains first-rate second-rate. Although the house, capacity 4,000, yawned with empty seats, those who came seemed appreciative.

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