It’s a nice coincidence that Saverio Mercadante’s name ends in -dante, because it was the poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) who saved Mercadante’s opera heroine Francesca da Rimini from being totally forgotten. As the dramaturge Mareike Wink writes in the Frankfurt program booklet to Mercadante’s opera, “if Dante hadn’t immortalized her in his Divine Comedy, we presumably wouldn’t know today that she had ever existed.”
Meanwhile, it seems certain that she really did exist. She was a contemporary of Dante’s, born sometime in the middle of the 13th century as the daughter of the ruling lord of Ravenna, Guido I da Polenta. Like many other princesses of most centuries, she was married off for political reasons to a prince of another jurisdiction, in her case to Giovanni Malatesta, the eldest son of the ruler of nearby Rimini, which is fifty-some km south of Ravenna on the east (Adriatic) coast of Italy.
Giovanni (called Lanciotto in the opera) was apparently a brave warrior, but also crippled or deformed in some way (perhaps from a battle injury). Francesca never liked him, and soon began a relationship with his younger brother Paolo, her brother-in-law, known as ‘il bello’, the handsome one.
In the Inferno, the first part of his Divine Comedy, Dante tells of being guided through hell by the ancient Roman poet Virgil. Hell, in Dante’s telling, is divided into nine circles, depending on what sort of sins the condemned souls committed during their lifetimes. When they get to the second circle, Virgil explains that this is where the sin of lust is expiated, as the souls of the lustful are buffeted by endless winds. Virgil points out some of the inmates of the second circle, including several who are well known to opera fans, such as Dido, Queen of Carthage; Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt; Helen of Troy; and Tristan of Tristan and Isolde.
The last thirty-four lines of Canto 5 are devoted to a woman Dante seems to know and recognize, since he addresses her by name: “Francesca! Your sad fate moves my grief and pity to tears,” or words to that effect. (The Frankfurt program booklet quotes these thirty-four lines in a German translation that preserves Dante’s verse-and-rhyming pattern at the expense of literal accuracy.) She tells the poet how she and Paolo, who is weeping by her side, became lovers while reading the story of Sir Lancelot, one of the Knights of the Round Table, and his adulterous affair with King Arthur’s wife Guinevere. When they got to the part where Lancelot first kisses Guinevere, Paolo stopped reading and tremblingly kissed Francesca. “On that day we did not read any further.”
In the 19th and early 20th centuries dozens of operas were written about Francesca da Rimini, mostly by little-known composers. Saverio Mercadente (1795-1870) was actually a prominent and successful composer for several decades in the 19th century, but his version of Francesca da Rimini wasn’t even performed during his lifetime. He first wrote it in 1831 for Madrid, but it was never performed there because of various intrigues and jealousies among the singers. Later he tried to get it performed at La Scala in Milan, but that attempt was also unsuccessful. The world premiere did not take place until 2016, one hundred and forty-six years after the composer’s death.
I must admit that I had never even heard of Saverio Mercadante until the Frankfurt Opera performed his Francesca da Rimini in 2023. This staging was announced as the first German production (ever) of this opera. I assume it was also the first Austrian production, since it was prepared in cooperation with the Tirol Festival in Erl, Austria. (There is a lot of cooperation lately between the opera in Frankfurt and the festival in Erl, since they both have the same general director, Bernd Loebe.)
The opera Francesca da Rimini includes the scene mentioned in Dante’s Inferno where Francesca and Paolo take turns reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere to each other — Paolo insists on hearing Guinevere’s words of love from Francesca’s lips. But as the stage director Hans Walter Richter points out in the Frankfurt program booklet: “There isn’t too much action. The music focuses on the inside, the psychological development of the characters.”
In his staging, the three main characters are doubled by dancers who give further expression to their feelings. Unusually, all three eventually turn on their dancers and attack them physically — attacking themselves, as it were, and turning their aggression inwards.
Lanciotto, Francesca’s husband, (powerfully sung in Frankfurt and Erl by the American tenor Theo Lebow) has extensive arias expressing his suspicions and later his raging jealousy. Paolo, Lanciotto’s brother and Francesca’s lover, is a ‘trouser role’, played and sung by a young woman, the mezzo-soprano Kelsey Lauritano. Francesca is a dramatic soprano, Jessica Pratt or Anna Nekhames.
The adulterous lovers Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta have been depicted in numerous artworks, especially in the 19th century. Even The Kiss (Le Baiser) by Auguste Rodin, one of his best-known and most sensual sculptures, was originally entitled Francesca da Rimini before critics suggested giving it a more universal name. In the sculpture, Paolo’s right hand is resting lightly on Francesca’s thigh, but I never noticed what he has in his left hand: a book, no doubt the story of the lovers Lancelot and Guinevere that they were reading together.
My photos in this post are from 2012 and 2023. I wrote the text in 2023.
See also: Verdi and Monteverdi.
The singers Theo Lebow and Kelsey Lauritano, the stage director Hans Walter Richter, the set designer Johannes Leiacker, the chorus director Tilman Michael, the dramaturge Mareike Wink, the study director Takeshi Morluchi, the musical coach Felice Venanzoni, the stage manager Anskje Matthiessen and several others involved in the Frankfurt production of Francesca da Rimini have all come as featured guests in various years to my opera appreciation courses Opern-Gespräche and Frankfurt OperaTalk.