There's Something About Francesca

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With the temperature already cranked up, the Princeton Festival goes even hotter and descends into hell this weekend with Rachmaninoff’s 1904 opera Francesca da Rimini based on the fifth canto of Dante’s The Inferno and starring soprano Caroline Worra.

The music churns immediately, spiraling in the prologue as if descending further and further down the layers of the underworld, as wordless vocalises begin to float up. It’s an especially fitting listen on a day like today, where thunderclaps have begun to resound across New York and the sky has turned prematurely dark.

But Rachmaninoff was hardly the first person to set his hands on the real-life story of Francesca, the daughter of a lord of Ravenna whose marriage to Giovanni Malatesta solidified a peace between her family and the Malatestas after a long war. The hitch to this hitching was that Giovanni was deformed, and so his younger brother Paolo was presented to Francesca as her betrothed. It wasn’t until her wedding day that she learned the truth.

Francesca and Paolo continued the affair despite both being married and having children, and were subsequently murdered by Giovanni. In an echo of the Carlo Gesualdo story, Giovanni escaped unpunished and ruled Pesaro until his death in 1304, 19 years after slaying his wife and brother.

The operatic elements are inherent in Dante’s plot, which takes some poetic license and weaves in the story of Lancelot and Guinevere for added texture and context. But what is it about Francesca that has made her and her star-crossed love life fodder for over 10 operas (the Met’s 2012-13 season includes Riccardo Zandonai’s 1914 version of the story)?

Dante’s own liberties with the story offer some clues: The Lancelot-Guinevere affair is a sort of B-side to the oft-told story of Romeo and Juliet, and provides an ideal framework for the historical drama. We know what’s going to happen before the work starts (especially in the Rachmaninoff version of this opera, which is introduced by Dante and Virgil), and so the interest is in how composers will craft the story in their own image. If series like Twilight and True Blood have taught us anything, it’s that a familiar story with a predictable plot works well with audiences who can then appreciate the nuances and minutiae rather than focusing on an unfamiliar sequence of events.

But it’s also the afterlife in Dante’s portrait of Francesca and Paolo that makes the story really rich and compelling. Beyond the multifaceted emotions of love, guilt, rage, jealousy and lust, the knowledge that Francesca and Paolo are condemned to an eternity of spinning around in hell without being allowed to touch is the true tragedy of the work. Whereas with Romeo and Juliet we hope that they are happily reunited in the afterlife, we know that no such consolation is awarded to Dante’s lovers, themselves the victims of fate and politics and that mortal affliction known in common parlance as being human.

Curiously, the Princeton Festival pairs Rachmaninoff’s Francesca with one-third of Puccini’s Il Trittico, Gianni Schicchi. In Trittico, it comes as the last word and comic relief from two preceding heavy works that end, respectively, in murder and suicide. Like Francesca da Rimini, the work owes much to the Divine Comedy and also deals with deception, especially in the face of love. It offers the flip side of the coin: The occasional lie, big or small, can benefit the right people.