Francesca da Rimini

By Maya Pritsker

Written for the concert Dante’s Inferno, performed on Jan 25, 2002 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

To be a Russian composer at the end of the nineteenth century and not to write operas would be rare indeed. Sergei Rachmaninoff first had success in this genre with Aleko (1892), an opera written as a graduation piece and produced soon after by the Imperial Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. In 1897, after the unexpected failure of his First Symphony, he accepted a conducting post at Mamontov’s Private Opera in Moscow, learning quickly on the job and becoming a friend and collaborator to the young bass Fyodor Shalyapin. At this point, it seemed only natural to ask Modest Tchaikovsky—playwright, opera librettist, and brother of the great composer—for his help with a new opera project, based possibly on Shakespeare’s Richard II. Instead, Modest offered Francesca da Rimini from Canto V of Inferno, the first part of Dante’s La divina comedia.

Rachmaninoff, not one to be intimidated by the inevitable comparisons to the symphonic poem on the same subject by Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky, agreed. He knew and loved the story, and immediately laid out some of ideas for the opera. In a way similar to Tristan und Isolde, Francesca’s story spoke to the trends of fin-de-siécle art, which had a fascination with everything medieval as well as with the subjects of love and death, sin and innocence. Not by coincidence, this same story was transformed three years later into a highly successful verse tragedy by Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863-1938).

In 1900 Rachmaninoff began composing Francesca and Paolo’s love duet. However, almost six years passed before he finished the opera. These were years of profound changes in his personal and creative life, and also ones of important opera experiences. In 1902 he and his young wife Natalia spent part of their honeymoon in Bayreuth, where they heard various works by Wagner. An engagement with Mamontov’s Opera eventually led to an invitation to become a conductor at the Bolshoi Theater. It was just prior to his debut season at the Bolshoi that the composer found reason to return again to his languishing libretto.

As it happened, in 1903 Rachmaninoff started another short opera, Skupoy rytsar (The Miserly Knight), based on Pushkin’s poetic drama (he had in mind his friend Shalyapin for the title role). He needed a one-act opera to complement The Miserly Knight for a possible production during his season at the Bolshoi. He rushed to finish Francesca. This may possibly explain why Rachmaninoff accepted a libretto that eventually proved to be the opera’s shortcoming.

Most of Canto V of Dante’s Inferno describes Hell’s second circle and its various inhabitants. When the souls of Francesca and Paolo appear, Dante does not tell their story in detail, assuming the reader’s familiarity with it. Francesca was the daughter of a Ravenna notable and in 1275 married the unattractive and lame Malatesta, son of the leader of Rimini’s Guelf Party. After discovering that she was carrying on an affair with his younger brother, Malatesta killed them both. Dante himself had a personal connection to the story, for he found refuge in a house of Francesca’s nephew in Ravenna.

The picture that the poet creates is visually and emotionally rich, yet laconic. In Dante’s version, not enough happens or is spoken of for an opera, so the librettist must recreate the drama. Unfortunately, Modest Tchaikovsky produced a libretto full of cliches and, in Rachmaninoff’s opinion, too few words for the most important scene, the duet of Francesca and Paolo. Though not completely satisfied, Rachmaninoff began work on the opera. Ultimately, he could not avoid the libretto’s trap: the opera lacks structural balance (the Prologue is longer that the rest of the opera) and seems static. But he overcame the banality of the libretto’s language and created a sincere, engaging, and intense interpretation of Dante’s images, abundant with moments of sheer beauty and truth.

Musically, Francesca’s style is remarkably unified. It is a perfect blend of the best of Tchaikovsky’s traditions—a richness of melody deeply rooted in Russian urban and art song, and emotionally precise and nuanced orchestral writing that reveals the subtlest implications of feelings and events—somewhat Wagnerian in terms of harmony, sonorities and symphonic development. And yet the opera has Rachmaninoff’s unmistakably dark tone, his signature combination of “heightened emotional temperature” and restraint that perfectly serve the plot. His skillful use of a few leitmotifs, thematic “bridges” and the key motif of a minor second which permeates the score serve as the opera’s binding elements.

Among the most effective sections are the Prologue (especially the orchestral introduction) and the Epilogue—both masterly shaped pictures of Dante’s Inferno. One can almost physically experience the gloom and horror of this deserted place with its black rocks and gray skies. The dramatic monologue of Malatesta in the first scene presents, through an expressive declamatory style above the dark, nervous orchestral background full of dotted rhythm, the complex character of a medieval warrior, torn between love and suspicion, hope and hatred. The musical image of Francesca with her descending leitmotif and restrained phrases is the epitome of tenderness, sadness and quiet grace, which gives way to an open passion at the climax of her duet with Paolo in the second scene. Starting with the beautifully orchestrated, spring-like theme of Francesca, the scene is remarkable for its slowly mounting tension, building up through several emotional waves to a unique 51-bar orchestral episode signifying Francesca’s and Paolo’s embrace, during which the mood gradually darkens as a premonition of tragedy. It is interrupted by Malatesta’s strike and immediately changes into the music of the Inferno in the brief Epilogue.

Rachmaninoff conducted the premiere of Francesca da Rimini and Skupoy Ritsar at the Bolshoi theatre in January of 1906. Neither opera gained real popularity, not only because of problems with librettos and staging, but also because of the premieres’ timing. Russia was in the midst of its first revolution (1905-1907), and Rachmaninoff soon left for Germany, where he spent about two years. Then World War I broke out, followed by the October Revolution, and Rachmaninoff’s eventual emigration to the West. Francesca da Rimini remained part of the Bolshoi’s repertoire into the 1960s and 1970s, but was almost unknown in the West. Perhaps only now, with renewed understanding of fin-de-siécle art, and orchestras and opera companies willing to present unfamiliar music, has the time has come for this lyrical, imaginative and beautiful opera.