Opera Scotland

Francesca da Rimini 2018Scottish Opera

Read more about the opera Francesca da Rimini

The 2017/18 season of Scottish Opera opened at the Edinburgh International Festival with a new production of Greek, the modern classic by Mark-Antony Turnage, which had its British premiere at the 1988 Festival. It re-appeared in the main Glasgow season later on. That began with a welcome and overdue revival of Sir David McVicar's powerful production of La traviata. In the New Year there were new productions of another successful recent piece, Flight (Jonathan Dove) as well as Ariadne auf Naxos and Eugene Onegin. As a follow-up to the four operatic rareties mounted as Sunday concerts in 2016/17, the new subjects were rare Russian operas - Tchaikovsky's Iolanta, Prokofiev's Fiery Angel and a Rachmaninov double bill - Aleko and Francesca da Rimini, the last being a Scottish premiere.   The fourth of these concerts was a digest of Russian pieces performed by students from the National Opera Studio under the title From Russia With Love. There was also the regular piano-accompanied Highlights tour round the Highlands and Islands,

Rachmaninov's Francesca da Rimini is even rarer in performance than Aleko, and, while its deficiencies are obvious, it contains so much glorious writing that its neglect is tragic if understandable. In the fifteen years since Aleko, Rachmaninov's development as a composer and especially as orchestrator is wonderful. It is frustrating that over the same period Modest Tchaikovsky, who provided the texts for his brother's last two operas, The Queen of Spades and Iolanta, seems to have learned so little about structure and pacing. Admittedly Dante's reference to the tragedy of Paolo and Francesca in The Inferno is brief enough to make it surprising that their story has become so well-known. Here their appearance is just as brief, and the opera is essentially a dialogue between the poet and his guide, the Ghost of Virgil, as they explore the lower depths of Hell. Rachmaninov's music for the work, is of quite astonishing quality and immediacy, and the Orchestra of Scottish Opera and the freelance chorus, mainly regulars, recruited for the concurrent run of Eugene Onegin, gave an absolutely electrifying account of it, under the enthusiastic guidance of Stuart Stratford, who clearly loves every note of the score.

The extended orchestral introduction is harmonically considerably more advanced than the earlier opera. There are hints of other Rachmaninov works, including The Isle of the Dead, composed at much the same time, and also of Sibelius. This prelude gradually builds up a head of steam as the mediaeval poet Dante, guided by the classical poet Virgil, looks down into the abyss of the various circles of Hell. The volume and sense of drama build until the chorus breaks in with a wordless vocalise, representing an eerie combination of the wailing condemned souls and howling gales - for Dante's view of Hell is a place of intense cold, rather than great heat.

As Paolo and Francesca emerge from the maelstrom, they reveal that the worst thing about their situation is the constant reminder of how happy they once were. There follows a scene in flashback - they have a wonderful duet and Lanciotto sings of his jealousy - with the orchestral underpinning surprisingly akin to the Second Symphony - before he kills them. There is a brief return to their dialogue with the poets before the orchestral and choral tumult takes over, bringing the opera to an overwhelming close. The cast of four, with Oleg Dolgov doubling as Dante and Paolo, was on top form and created three-dimensional characters with relatively little material.

This concert performance was a great success, greeted with near-ecstasy by the audience. And how unusual it was to see the orchestra applauding the chorus at the end - thoroughly deserved. There was a definite sense of surprise projected from the performers at the realisation of just how good this work was. The problem remains of how to stage it, but there is far too much good stuff for it to disappear again. The Edinburgh Festival could do it in a concert - perhaps coupling it with Rachmaninov's cantata The Bells, which could also use three of the soloists? There is, of course, another one-act opera composed a decade later, that is  also derived from Dante, and is a contrasting comedy - Puccini's Gianni Schicchi.

This series of concerts of rare Russian repertoire has been a tremendous success, and it is to be hoped that a further set can be mounted in a year or two. The third Rachmaninov opera, The Miserly Knight, would be high on the list, maybe paired with a short piece by Rimsky (Kashchei) or Prokofiev (Maddalena). And there is plenty more Tchaikovsky to discover - never mind Glinka, Dargomizhky, Rubinstein, Shostakovich and other desirables.

Performance DatesFrancesca da Rimini 2018

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Theatre Royal, Glasgow | Glasgow

6 May, 15.00

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