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Zandonai Francesca da Rimini

Francesca Cheryl Barker
Paolo Il Bello Julian Gavin
Samaritana Kirstin Sharpin
Giancotto Jeffrey Black
Maletestino Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts
Ostasio George von Bergen
Il giullare Stephen Richardson
Adonella Madeleine Shaw
Altichiara Emma Carrington
Biancofiore Anna Leese
Garsenda Gail Pearson
Ser Toldo Berardengo Aled Hall
Smaragdi Clare Shearer
La voce del prigioniero Aled Hall
Il torrigiano William Robert Allenby

City of London Sinfonia & Opera Holland Park Chorus/Phillip Thomas
Director Martin Lloyd-Evans
Designer Jamie Vartan
Lighting Designer Mark Jonathan

Opera Holland Park, August 3 2010

The young Riccardo Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini (Turin, February 1914) has had to wait nearly a century to join the verismo revivals which have been a core speciality of Opera Holland Park. Customer nervousness of the unknown encouraged them to make a special ticket offer for this production and their foolhardiness has been ridiculed by one of the critics, who are polarized in their responses to this flawed, but far from negligible opera.

We enjoyed the first half inordinately. Martin Lloyd-Evans and his designer Jamie Vartan responded brilliantly to the limitations of the venue with good groupings on stage and imaginative suggestions of the grand houses of Polentani and the Maletestas, the battlements of the Maletesta stronghold towering high in the Opera Holland Park tent.

Those moveable structures provided at times extra reflective support to the orchestra, which produced magificent sonorities despite the smallish strings contingent - from row Q it all looked and sounded splendid, though people nearer the front might have had to crane their necks to watch singers at the top, and to follow the surtitles.

The settings were entirely non-realistic but served imagination well.



A stylized battle scene with flaming arrows was a case in point.

Francesca and her proxy husband to be, Paolo the Beautiful, are well matched, even though they don't sing at their meeting, a lovely orchestral scene. Later, their duets are finely moulded, with both Cheryl Barker and Julian Gavin in fine mellifluous voice on our night.

There were delightful scenes for the ladies in waiting, and obvious links to Tristan & Otello etc, but Zandonai's orchestral score, sympathetically conducted by Phillip Thomas, held our attention throughout and should not be dismissed on account of obvious connections with Mascagni, Strauss & Debussy, which are all signposted in Julian Grant's programme magazine article.

It is perhaps to be regretted that two villains were required, both of them disfigured... Jeffrey Black as the menacing husband Giancotto had a strong presence, though he overdid his limp and his vibrato ("a trill on every note" - Financial Times). Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts as the lustful younger brother Maletestino was not quite the "psychotic adolscent thug" intended. His offstage torturing of a prisoner (Tosca...) whose severed head he nonchalantly dropped onto the stage whilst setting up the "honour killing" of the adulterous pair of lovers, was a step too far; the brutality of the last scene brought to mind the horrors of Iranian stoning....

There are two DVDs of this little known opera, one from the Met, with Domingo and Scotto, and Classics Today welcomes the "guilty, highly caloric pleasure" (which we shared at Holland Park) of another from the Sferisterio Opera Festival [2004].

Opera Magazine in a combined review recommends: "turn to the 1984 Met version to see this opera catch fire".

To whet the appetites of adventurous opera goers, next year's enterprising programme will bring to Holland Park several comparative rarities: L'Amico Fritz; La rondine & La Wally.

Peter Grahame Woolf

"almost a masterpiece" (Musical Criticism)

Photos of Opera Holland Park’s production of Francesca da Rimini: Fritz Curzon,
and Tristram Kenton for the Guardian.