In 1902, Gabriele D’Annunzio published Francesca da Rimini, a tragedy based on Boccaccio’s elaboration of an episode in Dante’s Inferno.
Francesca was the Daughter of Guido I da Polenta, lord of Ravenna. Around 1275, Francesca was married to Giovanni Malatesta, the son of Malatesta da Verucchio, lord of Rimini. The marriage was arranged to seal a peace between the warring Polenta and Malatesta families. Giovanni was a brave and accomplished man, but he was also a cripple. After the marriage, Francesca fell in love with Paolo, Giovanni’s handsome and healthy younger brother, who was also married. Paolo and Francesca had a ten year affair, until Giovanni caught them in flagrante and killed them both around 1286.
In Dante’s Inferno, Dante meets Francesca and Paolo in the second circle of hell, which is reserved for the lustful. They are trapped for eternity in a whirlwind because they allowed themselves to be swept away by their passions. When Francesca relates her story, Dante faints in pity.
In his Commentary on the Divine Comedy, Giovanni Boccaccio claimed that Francesca had been tricked into marrying Giovanni. Giovanni’s father feared that Francesca would reject her crippled son, so he sent the handsome Paolo in his place, and Francesca only discovered the deception the next morning. The story, of course, seems rather unlikely, if not impossible. (Can one marry by proxy?) And there is no external historical evidence to support it.
But plausibility never stopped a good dramatist. Thus D’Annunzio adapted Boccaccio’s version of the story into a play.
Plausibility never stopped a good opera either. Thus in 1913, the Italian composer Riccardo Zandonai (1883–1944) composed an opera, Francesca da Rimini, based on D’Annunzio’s play.
Zandonai is a little-known composer in the lush, late Romantic tradition of Puccini and Richard Strauss. Francesca is his best-known work. According to Wikipedia, in the New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Renato Chiesa calls Francesca “one of the most original and polished Italian melodramas of the 20th century, [which] combines a powerful gift for Italian melody . . . with an exceptional command of orchestration.”
Earlier this month, the Metropolitan Opera in New York revived Francesca with Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek singing the lead role. On March 16, Francesca was seen in movie theaters around the world in one of the Met’s live HD simulcasts. Next Wednesday, April 3, one can see encore performances in US theaters at 6:30 pm local time. For information about a broacast in your area, click here.
I highly recommend the Met’s Live in HD simulcasts. It is the best way to see opera: the seats are cheaper and more comfortable, the sound quality is excellent, and because of multiple cameras and closeups, you have a better view than any seat in the house.