`Francesca’ returns to Met after 27-year absence

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NEW YORK (AP) - Mark Delavan knocked over a table and swung his ax. “Francesca da Rimini” is not subtle.

Riccardo Zandonai’s most well-known composition returned to the Metropolitan Opera on Monday night after a 27-year absence, a schmaltzy verismo melodrama with charged music and enough family turmoil to fill several soap opera seasons.

The revival showcased Eva-Maria Westbroek’s dramatic soprano and fine acting as Francesca unsuccessfully tries to navigate a love quadrangle, an entertaining performance of a genre that was fading even at the time Zandonai was creating the work.

Lacking a musically memorable aria or ensemble, “Francesca” has not been part of the core repertory. Still, Zandonai’s score, with a libretto by music publisher Tito Ricordi, makes for an enjoyable evening.

Based on a play by Gabriele d’Annunzio that was inspired by Dante’s “Inferno” and set in 14th-century Ravenna and Rimini, “Francesca” premiered in 1914. (Why didn’t the Met wait another year and bring it back for the 100th anniversary?)

Its first U.S. performance was at the Met in 1916, but after 1918 it disappeared until Piero Faggioni’s larger-than-life staging in 1984 that starred Renata Scotto, Placido Domingo and Cornell MacNeil under James Levine’s frenetic baton. Two years later, the Met brought it back with the blustery tenor Ermanno Mauro, and then “Francesca” vanished again until now.

Francesca, part of a wealthy Polentani family, falls in love with the dashing Paolo of the wealthy Malatesta family _ even before they speak to each other _ but for political reasons she is forced to marry his deformed, cruel brother Giovanni, who is known as Gionciotto and walks with a limp. Paolo longs for Francesca even after the wedding. Francesca is then pursued by their younger brother, Malatestino, who lost an eye during a battle between the Guelphs and Ghibellines. Spurned by Francesca, Malatestino tells Giovanni of Paolo’s love for his wife, and Giovanni kills both Francesca and Paolo.

Scotto gave an over-the-top, “demented” diva performance a quarter-century ago, when her voice was past its prime, but she created a role with an unrelenting force of personality. Westbroek, who made her Met debut as Sieglinde in Wagner’s “Die Walkuere” two years ago, gives a more rounded portrayal.

She showed more of Francesca’s vulnerability in the softer, lyrical moments, yet her voice had enough heft to accurately cut through the swelling orchestration.

Marcello Giordani struggled at the start as Paolo, sounding strained and constricted when the second act began. But when he climbed the tower of Ezio Frigerio’s huge set _ which looks more Industrial Revolution than early Renaissance _ Giordani’s tenor gained luster. While his voice’s color faded in the softer passages and he lacked Domingo’s suave manner, it was a far better performance than Giordani’s Aeneas in Berlioz’s “Les Troyens” in December, when he withdrew in the middle of the run and retired the role from his repertory.

Delavan’s booming baritone was imposing in the somewhat cartoonish role of Gionciotto; he dropped the diabolic beard that MacNeil wore when the production was new. Robert Brubaker had a bright tenor as Malatestino, and Ginger Costa-Jackson displayed a sweet voice and demeanor as Francesca’s slave Smaragdi.

Marco Armiliato didn’t whip the orchestra into a frenzy, as Levine did, but still led a driven performance that brought to life a score that at times harkens to Puccini. David Kneuss directed, adhering pretty much to the original staging that he assisted on 29 years ago. The production, from the Met’s hyper-realistic era, includes a fire-spewing ram. The three intermissions remain, but curtain calls in front of the traditional gold drape were reduced from five to two.

There are five more performances through March 22, including a March 16 matinee that will be televised to theaters around the world and broadcast on radio.

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