Francesca da Rimini(i) (‘Francesca of Rimini’)
- Richard Taruskin
(‘Francesca of Rimini’)
Opera in a prologue, one act and an epilogue, op.25, by Sergey Vasil’yevich Rakhmaninov to a libretto by Modest Tchaikovsky after Canto v of Dante Alighieri’s Inferno; Moscow, Bol’shoy Theatre, 11/24 January 1906.
Rakhmaninov began composing his Francesca da Rimini in 1900, hard on the heels of a four-act treatment of the same subject by Eduard Nápravník, chief conductor of the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg and completed it in 1904–5 while occupying the corresponding post at the corresponding Moscow theatre, the Bol’shoy. He conducted the première himself, with Antonina Nezhdanova in the title role and Dmitry Smirnov as Dante, in a double bill with the première of his Miserly Knight. Despite a torrid love scene (and though it has found aggressive champions), it is Rakhmaninov’s weakest opera, owing in part to a clumsily crafted libretto, in part to the static and disproportionately lengthy prologue and epilogue. These framing scenes are set in the Second Circle of Hell, with Dante (tenor), guided by the shade of Virgil (baritone), accosting the wind-buffeted spirits of Francesca (soprano) and her lover Paolo Malatesta (tenor). The prologue, essentially a grandiose tone poem for orchestra and wordless chorus representing the damned (and inevitably influenced by the famous orchestral fantasia by the librettist’s brother), is longer than either of the dramatic scenes....