A House Divided

Jesse Simon
jueves, 8 de junio de 2023
Loy, Francesca da Rimini © 2023 by Monika Rittershaus Loy, Francesca da Rimini © 2023 by Monika Rittershaus
Berlin, viernes, 19 de mayo de 2023. Deutsche Oper Berlin. Zandonai: Francesca da Rimini. Christof Loy, director. Sara Jakubiak (Francesca), Lexi Hutton (Samaritana), Samuel Dale Johnson (Ostasio), Ivan Inverardi (Gianciotto), Jonathan Tetelman (Paulo il Bello), Charles Workman (Malatestino), Meechot Marrero (Biancofiore), Elisa Verzier (Garsenda), Arianna Manganello (Altichiara), Karis Tucker (Adonella), and Irene Roberts (Smaragdi). Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Ivan Repušić, conductor

Riccardo Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini was intended to be the 2021 instalment in the Deutsche Oper’s ongoing reappraisal of neglected works from the early twentieth century, a highly rewarding series that has thus far featured rarities from Schreker, Zemlinsky and Langgaard, among others. Although the première performance took place as scheduled, lockdown restrictions meant that it was performed to an empty house (for the purposes of live-streaming), and would have to wait another two years for its first public performance. Between Christof Loy’s unsettling staging and a captivating performance of the title role from Sara Jakubiak, the evening provided an ideal introduction to a work of challenging intensity.

Francesca is not perhaps as much of an obscurity as some of the previous entries in the Deutsche Oper’s series. The opera, based on D’Annunzio’s tragedy (itself based on a passage from Dante), had a successful première in 1914 and was still highly-regarded enough at the dawn of the LP era to merit a full studio recording. Both the demanding title role and the tenor part of Paolo il Bello have attracted enough champions over the years that the work has never vanished entirely, and its relative neglect may be due primarily to the difficulties it poses, both to its principal singers and its prospective audience.

Zandonai: Francesca da Rimini. Ivan Repušić, conductor. Christof Loy, director. Berlin, Deutsche Oper Berlin, May 2023. © 2023 by Monika Rittershaus.Zandonai: Francesca da Rimini. Ivan Repušić, conductor. Christof Loy, director. Berlin, Deutsche Oper Berlin, May 2023. © 2023 by Monika Rittershaus.

Tristan und Isolde looms large over Zandonai’s opera, as it did over many late-romantic works dealing with uncontainable passion. Yet what makes Tristan immortal is Wagner’s willingness to deny its central characters the completion of their love: even the rapture of Isolde’s Liebestod only hints at the explosion of passions that will occur after the two are finally joined in death. It often feels that subsequent composers and librettists were so infuriated by the thwarted union of Tristan and Isolde that they took it upon themselves to ensure that their doomed characters lost themselves to wild ecstasy at least once before dying … albeit with variable results. While Zandonai was arguably better than many of his contemporaries at illustrating those moments of insensible bliss, he could also be fearless when it came to pushing them completely over the top. Instead of one climactic duet, he gives us no fewer than three, each more fired-up than the last; and if the union of soprano and tenor at the end of the third act is thrilling in its unchecked force, the sudden quiet appearance of the offstage choir takes the scene dangerously close to parody.

Yet there is much to admire in Zandonai’s score and, with singers of absolute commitment and a staging of relative restraint, there are many pleasures – guilty and otherwise – to be found. Fortunately the Deutsche Oper’s production had both. Director Christof Loy – who was also responsible for Schreker’s Der Schatzgräber last year and the excellent production of Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane five years ago – offered a claustrophobic reading of the story that established a near-perfect mood of unspecified terrors constantly threatening to break through a thin veneer of civility. The late-medieval setting of the original may have been updated to the early twentieth century, but the elegant suits worn by the Malatesta clan could not disguise their essentially barbarous nature.

Zandonai: Francesca da Rimini. Ivan Repušić, conductor. Christof Loy, director. Berlin, Deutsche Oper Berlin, May 2023. © 2023 by Monika Rittershaus .Zandonai: Francesca da Rimini. Ivan Repušić, conductor. Christof Loy, director. Berlin, Deutsche Oper Berlin, May 2023. © 2023 by Monika Rittershaus .

The brutality of the staging was no less unsettling for being largely implied. When Samaritana appeared on stage in the first act she had the stunned, bruised look of one trapped in an endless cycle of domestic violence; yet Mr Loy was just as often able to create unease by populating the stage with silent, sinister onlookers, figures who may not have appeared in the libretto but were essential to the mood of hemmed-in hopelessness that dominated the evening. The few moments when Francesca and Paolo found themselves alone came as a kind of relief.

Although the staging maintained its own logic, Mr Loy seemed less interested in delineating the drama than establishing the right emotional foundation for each scene. In the battles of the second act, which featured numerous figures whirling around the stage as though whipped by a violent storm, the action did not illustrate the events of the libretto so much as underline the escalating tensions between Paolo and Francesca. Even in the relative calm of the third act, Mr Loy’s pessimistic vision of Francesca’s situation provided a necessary counterbalance to the excitability of the music and yielded a tragedy of rigorous clarity.

The greatest strength of the evening, however, was its vocal performances. Sara Jakubiak gave the production a thrillingly focussed embodiment of the title role that started at a high plateau of intensity and continued undiminished until the opera’s final moments. Even in the first act, her clearly crafted lines – paired with a succession of distant, trance-like stares – established a troubled presence at the centre of the drama; by the end of the second act she had consolidated her dominance, not merely over the Malatesta brothers, but over the audience as well. Yet for all her compelling moments, Ms Jakubiak allowed no indulgence to invade her performance: her willingness to remain fully immersed in Francesca’s escalating torment gave depth and nobility to the climactic duets in the third and fourth acts. And despite the demands of the earlier scenes, she maintained enough strength to ensure that her haunted solo scene near the end of the fourth act occupied its rightful place as the opera’s high point.

Zandonai: Francesca da Rimini. Ivan Repušić, conductor. Christof Loy, director. Berlin, Deutsche Oper Berlin, May 2023. © 2023 by Monika Rittershaus.Zandonai: Francesca da Rimini. Ivan Repušić, conductor. Christof Loy, director. Berlin, Deutsche Oper Berlin, May 2023. © 2023 by Monika Rittershaus.

As Paolo il Bello, Jonathan Tetelman had the right mixture of big tone and projective power to match Ms Jakubiak in the duets. While no one would argue that Paolo is a character of comparable complexity, the force of Mr Tetelman’s ardour rendered the doomed relationship with Francesca both credible and exciting. Nor were the evening’s vocal strengths limited solely to the central lovers: Ivan Inverardi was especially commanding as Gianciotto, bringing a sudden jolt of authority to the frenzied second act and, in the first scene of the fourth act, locked in an outsized struggle to keep doubt and jealousy at bay. The quartet of Francesca’s ladies in waiting – Meechot Marrero, Elisa Verzier, Arianna Manganello and Karis Tucker – were also responsible for several fine moments, especially in the third and fourth acts.

Ivan Repušić spent the evening highlighting the opera’s frequent moments of excitability while resisting the temptation to push them too far. Instead he concentrated on maintaining balance within and between the various orchestral sections, and building the rhythms of the drama to their inevitable peaks. The resulting performance rarely drew attention to itself, but neither did it attempt to underplay the score’s most vigorous passages: the manic energy of the second act would have been compelling even without the stage action, while in the most rapturous sections of the third act the orchestra displayed a refinement that elevated the passions of the characters by keeping them just barely in check.

Indeed the staging, the singing and the conducting were all of sufficiently high quality that one was able to spend much of the evening considering the merits of the opera itself. As with many of the other “rediscoveries” in the Deutsche Oper’s ongoing series, it is not difficult to see why Francesca has failed to secure a more permanent spot in the repertoire: the fervour of its emotions and the underlying cruelty of its action – both in fashion in the early decades of the twentieth century – seem slightly at odds with the early twenty-first century’s understanding of itself. Yet the new production was enjoyable as far more than a curiosity: if Zandonai’s opera has its inevitable moments of excess, it also contains passages that achieve exceptional force by bringing us closer to uncomfortable emotional truths.

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