There’s a certain logic in Christof Loy following up his 2019 production of Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane at the Deutsche Oper Berlin with Riccardo Zandonai’s 1914 piece Francesca da Rimini. Both pieces deal with overt, somewhat perverted, sexuality as the means of a woman achieving some sort of agency and both have lush, hyper-romantic scores. Loy claims his next project will be Shreker’s Der Schatzgräber for the same house so there’s apparently more to come.
Francesca da Rimini is not performed that often. It’s based on a story in Dante’s Inferno which is apparently based on fact. Dante, it’s believed, knew Francesca. To summarise very briefly, Francesca is tricked into marrying Giovanni, the oldest and ugliest of the Malatesta brothers; a powerful clan in 13th century Rimini. The interminable struggle between the Guelphs and Ghibellines forms the backdrop so there’s plenty of utterly pointless violence. Francesca has an affair with the much more handsome Paolo Malatesta and is betrayed by the third, one eyed brother, possibly after sleeping with him too. Giovanni finds Francesca and Paolo in her room together late at night and kills them.
Loy gives the piece a stylised modern setting. There’s one large room with a Caspar Friedrich like landscape beyond the picture windows. Dress is modern except for the Jester who appears briefly as a character in Act 1 but here pops up in doublet and hose in unexpected places throughout the piece. It’s a pretty effective staging. Even the almost impossible to pull off battle scene is well done. Jester aside I think it;’s pretty straightforward.
It’s well sung and acted too. Francesca is sung by Sara Jakubiak; last seen as Heliane, and she sings really well but her acting is better. She seems fascinated by, perhaps intoxicated by, violence. It’s certainly a powerful sexual stimulant for her. Jakubiak conveys this very effectively. Johnathan Tetelmann, as Paolo, is a good foil. He has some heavy duty singing to do over the large orchestra and still manages to convey his fascination with Francesca. The other two brothers; Ivan Inverardi as Giovanni and Charles Workman as Malatestino give straightforward portrayals of violent men who like killing and torturing and take pretty much anything else for granted. A bevy of young ladies makes up Francesca’s entourage among whom the most notable is Amira Elmadfa as the enigmatic and slightly sinister Smaragdi, whose role in some ways parallels that of Brangäne in Tristan und Isolde. The chorus is pretty good too though we never see it. The recording was made in 2021 under COVID conditions in an empty theatre with the chorus off stage. Carlo Rizzi conducts and I think he gets it. This is maybe the least Italian Italian music I’ve come across and he gives it the German Romantic treatment which seems appropriate.
Götz Filenius’ video direction is excellent and backed up by excellent picture and sound (stereo and DTS-MA-HD) on Blu-ray. The documentation includes a good discussion between Loy and dramaturge Dorothea Hartmann as well as a track listing and synopsis. Subtitle options are Italian, English, German, French, Japanese and Korean.
I’m really not sure I like this work. Overblown Romanticism and an overwrought fixation on sex and violence are not really my thing but I suspect that the production and performances here are about as good as this piece can get.