First performed in 1914 and based on Gabriele d’Annunzio’s play, Zandonai’s most famous opera feeds on Debussy and Richard Strauss, mixing them into a heady concoction of late-romantic excess.
It’s fashionable to sneer at it – even if Schoenberg’s respected Gurrelieder sometimes gags on the same pungent exoticism – but, like overripe, sticky fruit, it can be rewarding if handled in the right way. It belongs in the category of second-rate operas that an inspired stage director can nudge upwards into the bottom of the premier league.
This is why Nicolas Joel is right to introduce it to Paris. His big mistake is to entrust the staging to Giancarlo del Monaco and team – trademark: limp stage directions and monumental sets – who rather predictably pull the Paris Opera down to a shoddy low.
They try to match the opulence in the pit by updating the action from medieval times to the art nouveau epoch when the opera was written. It is not in itself a bad option but they pollute the stage with classical statues and camp light fittings along with dubious design features from d’Annunzio’s villa.
A kindlier soul might describe the first act garden, a riot of plastic flowers and garlanded columns, where Francesca’s slave girl processes with a clockwork sparrow hawk (audience dismay mingled with laughter), as a fair stab at Alma-Tadema. To these eyes, the entire show looked as if the ghost of Liberace had been at the drawing-board.
The audience bayed for del Monaco’s blood at curtain call. He genuflected in derision, a self-anointed martyr to the cause of amateurish stagecraft.
The cast deserved better, although Svetla Vassileva’s hard-edged Francesca is painfully one-dimensional (loud). Roberto Alagna’s Paolo, admittedly in a less demanding role, is a model of style by comparison, now more robust in tone but shaping the music as naturally as ever. George Gagnidze, as the lame and twisted Giovanni, makes a stunning house debut, all seething frustration and exemplary projection. He also pilots his wheelchair like a Formula One champion.
Daniel Oren’s conducting tends to overplay the decibels but still makes a cogent case for the score, enough at any rate to make us pine for a worthier production.