"My life," sang Eva-Maria Westbroek as Francesca, "has more sorrow than I can tell."
This rich and fascinating opera by Riccardo Zandonai (1883-1944) was saturated in the sense of the unspoken. As the opera progressed it increasingly articulated its central ideas through Wagnerian symbols of night and death as potential eternal union for its two central characters, Francesca and Paulo (sung by Marcello Giordani).
And yet moments after they are both stabbed and the curtain falls comes the realization of the greatest of the unspoken elements of the opera--that we know these characters through Dante. Dante introduced them in Canto V of the Inferno where the souls of the damned were swept aimlessly by constantly raging storms in the second circle of hell. Francesca is allowed to break from the torment only briefly to relate her story. This fate is a horrifying distortion of the Wagnerian concept of Liebestod.
This production, by Piero Faggioni, is well-known from the DVD starring Placido Domingo and Renata Scotto filmed by Brian Large in the 1980s. The Live-in-HD experience provided the opportunity to measure a different, and very worthy, cast but also was an example of how much the technology of HD filming and the camera techniques that have become idiomatic in HD opera change the presentation of the opera.
The detail of the set was much more apparent Live-in-HD, and since the set was so rich and complex this was meaningful. The moving cameras articulated changes in color and texture on the set in ways that would not have been possible thirty years ago. The new angles and visual clarity summed and resonated with the now classic production.
In the act one intermission we had the opportunity to hear from the Met "Resident Costume Designer" Sylvia Nolan. She explained another aspect of the unspoken that was articulated through the original costumes designed by Franca Squarciapino.
"We pass through a lot of emotion in the opera," explained Nolan. These were translated by Squarciapino into colors and textures. "We start with something very translucent, full of light and gossamer [in the first act]. Then the color palette broadens in act two with warm and hot colors, which reflect the battles. Then we move into darker colors for acts three and four."
Nolan also described another feature of the costumes: Sqarciapino "quoted the silhouettes for the period [of Dante] however, in the decoration she actually quoted the artistic movements of the time the music was written...We see in the pattern of the embroidery the Art Nouveau movement and pre-raphaelite interest in bringing back their own version of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries."
"Lead me to my room and close the shutters," plead Francesca to her her sister just prior to seeing Paulo for the first time. "I need silence to calm me." This opera of the unspoken premiered on the edge of the first world war in 1914 has its own language for igniting the fearful boundary between silence and catastrophe.