Few single cantos of poetry have ever given as much to the world as Dante’s Canto V from the Inferno and the brief telling at the close of the love, death and afterlife of Francesca da Rimini.
Beginning with Dante in 1308 among the painters, musicians, painters , playwrights inspired by the tale can be included: Mercadante, Leigh Hunt, Ingres, Rodin, Rossini, Rachmaninoff, Doré (whose illustrations are reprinted to this day), Foote and of course Tchaikovsky, whose tone poem has done much to popularize the theme .
The operatic setting by Riccardo Zandonai (1883-1944) is but one of the latest of this overwhelming list of luminaries. Taking his cue from contemporary events of the 13th century and the real Francesca da Rimini (1255-1285, the lovers Francesca and Paolo Malatesta belong to that pantheon of the passionate, obsessed and doomed: Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde, Pelleas and Melisande and most importantly Lancelot and Guinivere.
There is to be an arranged marriage, and the price of the peace is to be the union of the beautiful Francesca da Polenta to the crippled and deformed Gianciotto Malestesta by his handsome brother Paolo who “represents his family.” The revelation of her true husband and his deformity are hidden by all.
However, at once the two fall in love and find the attraction irresistible. There follows the highly emotional and tragic sequence of four acts with the attraction, separation, union and finally discovery and death.
Dante meets the couple in the first circle of hell accompanied by the poet Virgil. They enter a portal guarded by Minos and encounter the great lovers of history as far back as Cleopatra. Their punishment is to live in an endless tumult of swirling winds in which they are tossed, like the uncontrollable nature of their passion, for a moment the tumult stills and Francesca begins:
There is no greater sorrow,
Than to be mindful of the happy time
In misery …
Of love in us thou hast so great desire
One day we were reading of our delight …
Kissed upon the mouth all palpitating …
By the end of Francesca’s sad recounting, Dante is so overwhelmed he falls "as if dead."
Zandonai, in his version of the tale, turned to playwright Gabriele D’Annunzio with a libretto by Tito Ricordi. The four acts focus on the false premise of the wedding, the re-encounter of Francesca and Paolo who are being watch by a third would be lover, his rejection and betrayal, and the final discovery by her husband and the aftermath in which the lovers are slain. This is done all in the best turn of the century idiom of lush orchestration a la Richard Strauss (one of Zandonai’s models), circa 1914.
Please tune in for a rare treat and a passion that speaks to us across 700 hundred years in this week’s Metropolitan Opera broadcast of Zandonai’s "Francesca da Rimini."
Eva-Maria Westbroek and Marcello Giordani star in the Met's production of this melodic gem, inspired by Dante's "Inferno." Marco Armiliato conducts. It starts this Saturday at Noon on KPAC and KTXI.