Saverio Mercadante's Francesca da Rimini
A World Premiere
by Charles Jernigan
Charles saw the
production on July 30 and August 2, 2016.
The theme of this year's Festival della Valle D'Itria was Eros and Dionysus. As usual, the operas were mostly unknown works including Mercadante’s Francesca da Rimini whose world premiere it was 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.
Guido, Francesca and Paolo
The story comes ultimately from Dante's Inferno but here the libretto by Felice Romani was directly based on an early nineteenth century drama by Silvio Pellico. It is, for the most part, an excellent, taut libretto. It was not written for Mercadante, but for Feliciano Strepponi, the father of Giuseppina Strepponi, Verdi's wife, in 1823. 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 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.
Listeners will find a great deal of beautiful music here, 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. 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."
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. He 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 and I was reminded that there is worth in something purely beautiful for its own sake.
All of that does not mean that the production was 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!".
Francesca - Leonor Bonilla
The singers were all young, well rehearsed and very good. 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 Süngü 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). Along with the eleven dancers of the corps, there were two excellent principal dancers, Letizia Giuliani and Francesco Marzola.
Paolo - Aya Wakizono
Finally there was the large Orchestra Internazionale d'Italia led by Fabio Luisi whose 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 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. I can't wait for the DVD.