Francesca da Rimini - Opera Holland Park, 7 August 2010
Overcooked and under-inspired, Zandonai's opera itself isn't exactly a lost masterpiece, but there's enough in the Wagneresque orchestration and frantic melodrama to make it worth staging. The Met clearly think so too; they're putting it on in 2012.
Even with the reduced orchestration of Opera Holland Park, Philip Thomas made a compelling case for taking the score seriously. Nevertheless the rambling libretto, forgettable melodies and a curious dramatic structure that sidelines major plot points work against it.
The title role is a mighty challenge for any soprano. Cheryl Barker devoted most of her energy to simply getting through it. Julian Gavin as her brother-in-law and lover Paolo gave more physically, but his underpowered tenor was a disappointment after his recent thrilling Cavaradossi at ENO - was he perhaps ill? Jeffrey Lloyd Roberts pitched her other brother-in-law, the scheming Maletestino, at a hysterical intensity bordering on camp. It didn't quite sit with the more restrained style of the rest of the cast, but seemed truer to the spirit of a work which seems to beg more for the all-or-nothing approach of a Calixto Bieito than the thoughtful naturalism Martin Lloyd-Evans actually provided.
Sometimes the smaller roles are less strongly cast at Holland Park, so the quality of the four ladies-in-waiting was a pleasant surprise, especially Madeleine Shaw. In fact the unevenly-produced sound of Jeffrey Black as the vengeful husband Giancotto was the only real weakness in the casting.
The walls-on-wheels set isn't as lavish or as claustrophic as the music seems to demand, but within the constraints of a tight budget and the performance space itself it's an acceptable solution, transforming credibly from battleground to bedchamber.
I found the second half considerably more engaging than the first, though I'm not sure whether that was the opera itself or simply the production. It would be interesting to find out how many of the near-full house who took up OHP's free ticket offer ended up making a donation afterwards.