Monday, February 14, 2011

The perils of love

"Francesca da Rimini"

Valentine’s Day may not be the most appropriate date upon which to bring you the sad story of Francesca and Paolo, the star-crossed lovers of Zandonai’s opera Francesca da Rimini’. There’s a little bit of every star-crossed lovers' story in theirs: Tristan & Isolde, Lancelot & Guinevere, Romeo & Juliet, Dante and Beatrice; even Rodin’s statue ‘The Kiss’ is about them. Granted, this makes the opera’s story line somewhat confusing – the first question on everyone’s lips at interval at Opera Bastille on Saturday night was: “So, do you know what’s going on?” But the second comment was: “Fabulous singing!” Amazing tenor Roberto Alagna and soprano Svetla Vassileva dominated an excellent cast, which also included ‘Our Lou’ – Australian mezzo Louise Callinan, a friend whom I heard sing for the first time. What a voice! Her role as Francesca’s sister (“I’m the blonde!”) was heartily cheered from the excellent house seats she had organised for us.

Le ténor: Roberto Alagna 

Rodin's 'The Kiss' was originally
called 'Francesca da Rimini'
But back to the understanding of the opera was assisted when I discovered the English language page in the French program, entitled “To be read before the performance”. How helpful! This tells us that Riccardo Zandonai is one of the principal Italian composers of the 20th century (this opera was first performed in 1914), with influences as diverse as Mascagni (“Cavalleria Rusticana”) of whom he was a pupil, Debussy and Richard Strauss; and is “the quintessential representative of Italy’s Art nouveau music, the Liberty style for which Segantini was the painter and D’Annunzio the poet.” D’Annunzio in fact provided the libretto for this opera. Zandonai was also married to the exotically-named diva Tarquinia Tarquini, and I can only hope their union was a happier one than that of Francesca and Paolo.

Riccardo Zandonai (1883 - 1944)
The opera is set in 13th century Ravenna, although the production staged by the Paris Opera (previously used at the Zurich Opera, I’m told) is set in one of those time-less fantasy worlds which opera designers love.Thee are vague suggestions of the 13th century, coupled with WWII storm troopers and possibly even Il Duce; tableaux resemble paintings from the renaissance, and Greek and Roman statuary is dotted about. There’s a Garden of Eden, a falcon, a dwarf, a ship at sea with a searchlight scanning the audience, a puppet show, and a fierce bad guy in a wheelchair. I told you it was a little confusing.

Francesca was an historical figure, daughter of the Lord of Ravenna (who’s surname was Polenta – but I refused to be sidetracked by that interesting factoid). There had been one of those Capulet and Montague situations with the family of Malatesta (whose name already sounds bad). A political marriage was arranged between Francesca and Gianciotto, the oldest of three Malatesta brothers, who (in the opera at least) is supposed to be a hideously deformed and ugly man (he of the wheelchair). To trick Francesca into the deal, the handsome brother Paolo is sent along to marry her by proxy, as it were. Needless to say, she is a trifle miffed when she discovers this deception; but still Paolo is so alluring (he is a tenor, after all) that she falls in love with him, and he with her. There is a battle, and a third brother named Malatestino (who, in a somewhat irrelevant bit of sub-plot, loses an eye).

Ingres: 'Gianciotto Discovers
Paolo and Francesca'

Francesca and Paolo become the epitome of High Romantic love, and end up in bed after reading together the story of Lancelot & Guinevere. But early references to Tristan let us know that things are not likely to turn out well. Samaratina, Francesca’s sister (Louise!) has a bad feeling about the whole thing from the beginning, but no one listens to her and she’s not allowed back on after Act One – a mistake, on several levels, in my opinion. In the denouement, Malatestino (who looks very evil with a patch over his lost eye) makes advances to Francesca, who rebuffs him and complains to her husband. In revenge, Malatestino dobs in Francesca and Paolo, they are discovered in a compromising position by the husband and bad brother, and killed there and then. Cue curtain, cue applause. Cue *big sigh* for Valentine’s Day.

Actually, I looked up the story of the historic Francesco and Paolo, and it seems that he was married too; and they had several children together. The ‘evil’ husband was said to be brave but deformed. He did kill them, though. There’s nothing like the Romantic Tradition for making a good story out of a good story. There is also a version of the story from Giovanni Boccaccio, he of ‘The Decameron’ fame. Francesca, according to Boccaccio, was blatantly tricked into marrying Gianciotto, who was disfigured and uncouth, and the handsome and elegant Paolo was sent in his brother's place to settle the nuptial contract. Angered at finding herself wed the following day to Gianciotto, Francesca made no attempt to restrain her affections for Paolo and the two in fact soon became lovers. Informed of this liaison, Gianciotto one day caught them together in Francesca's bedroom (unaware that Paolo had become stuck in his attempt to escape down a ladder, she let Gianciotto in the room). When Gianciotto lunged at Paolo with a sword, Francesca stepped between the two men and was killed instead, much to the dismay of her husband, who then promptly finished off Paolo as well. Francesca and Paolo, Boccaccio concludes, were buried--accompanied by many tears--in a single tomb. 

Dante was a contemporary of the real Francesca and met her; he included her as a character in his ‘Inferno’, and she has lines in Canto V. Her shade tells Dante that her husband is destined for punishment in Caina--the infernal realm of familial betrayal named after Cain, who killed his brother Abel (Genesis 4:8)--for murdering her and Paolo. Her lines eloquently describe the power of love, and move the character Dante to tears:

Love, that can quickly seize the gentle heart,
took hold of him because of the fair body
taken from me—how that was done still wounds me.
 Love, that releases no beloved from loving,
took hold of me so strongly through his beauty
that, as you see, it has not left me yet.
 Love led the two of us unto one death.
Caina waits for him who took our life.

Removing the wig: looks like fun
Gosh, after that I need supper...the opera ran for about 3.5 hours, and  then, thrillingly, our little group was granted a peek backstage at The Bastille! First, a glimpse of the stage from behind the curtain, as the stage crews packed away the scene of the crime; then to Louise’s (very nice) dressing room, where she had got as far as changing her 13th century-ish dress for street clothes, but still had on her stage make up and blonde wig. I suspect that most of you blog readers are secretly, if not openly, excited by dress-ups, and back-stage at the opera has got to be the mother lode for those of us in that category. Plus the sound wafting in of a lone baritone practising wafting down the corridor, the chorus costumes hanging on the railings, and a large crowd of autograph hunters huddled at the stage door waiting for Alagna. We had all excitedly asked Louise to sign our programs (she being our star of the night) but she said the autograph hunters would not recognise her without the blond wig. It is funny to watch them scrutinise each face to see if the departing artiste is the one they are after – an opera singer in street clothes is a different visual matter to one in costume.

The Bastille behind the July Column
The Bastille itself – a new opera house for me – was a great experience. A huge auditorium – it has 2,723 seats, every one with an unrestricted view of the stage – also has great acoustics. It was a project of Francois Mitterrand, and opened in 1989, so it is a very recent building by opera house standards. It stands on the Place de Republic, on the site of the abandoned Bastille Station. The gala opening concert in 1989 was held on the 200th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. The exterior of the building has been criticised as too huge and out of sympathy with the surrounding buildings; but with a brief to build an auditorium of this size, there must have been few other options. The interior is bare and plain, in the modernist style, but the clean lines, well-designed seating, and above all the superlative views and acoustics tick all the right boxes. I might also mention – because it is more important than you might appreciate – that this opera house has the shortest interval queues for the Ladies’ of any house I have been to. Kudos to the architect.

And that supper I mentioned? Eventually our little party made its way across (or rather, around) the Place du Republic to Bofinger, a late-opening, après-opera bistrot with lovely Art Deco interiors. Here’s a description from its website:

Bofinger's Dining Room
The glass dome ceiling illuminating the main dining room is a masterpiece by Néret and Royer. It was installed by Albert Bruneau, Bofinger's son in law who succeeded him in 1906, in association with Louis Barraud. The revolving door, the bar, the vast winding staircase, the padded black leather bench seats, the bronze wall lights, the copper, the ceramics, the mirrors, everything dates from this period and epitomises the style of an Alsatian brasserie. At the start of the Années Folles, it became the meeting place of the political world, and more than one government fell to the power of its sauerkraut. 

Bofinger is apparently famous for its sauerkraut, and justly so if governments have fallen under its power. I’m sorry I didn’t order it now (I had scallops)

It was late, but what a party (Rodney behind the camera)
We got home at about 3 am – I’ll leave you to imagine the great champagne, French food, wine, conversation and friendship that made the hours whizz by.

May I propose a toast to Francesca and Paolo, and to “Love, that releases no beloved from loving”.  I hope you managed to enjoy or avoid Valentine’s Day, whatever was your aim.

Images and info from:

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