There is drama. There is melodrama. And then there is Francesca da Rimini. To say the acting style is exaggerated doesn’t begin to describe it. Imagine a production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” if Martha and George were played by Norma Desmond and Snidely Whiplash. That said, I think I liked it. It was an uphill battle to get there, however.
Being unfamiliar with the opera, everything about the production was new to me. The costumes and sets are lavish. The setting, 13th century Italy, is true to the text. The music is wonderful and sounds vocally challenging, especially for the soprano. The music is unusual, from my experience, for opera. There is definitely a ’20th century’ feel to it. It often sounds like a film score. But not the score to a big costume drama; more like the score of film noir. By the last act I was thinking of Hitchcock.
It must be difficult to direct melodrama. If played with too much subtlety or realism the text seems cartoonish. If played too ‘over-the-top’ it risks becoming a parody of itself. In this case, they chose to embrace exaggeration for all it is worth. It took a while for me to get onboard but, eventually, I got there.
I almost left at the end of Act I. The opera opens with a chorus of woman. They strike overly dramatic poses, look knowingly into each other’s eyes and stare off into space for no apparent reason. They move in a way that seems to have more to do with maximizing the visual impact of their flowing chiffon gowns than supporting anything taking place in the scene. There were times I had to force myself not to laugh. The title character enters to fret about the pending arrival of her betrothed. While vocally beautiful, the acting is quite a bit less subtle than Tippi Hedren hearing the gulls tapping on the telephone booth. It took a few minutes to realize what I was seeing was not bad acting but a stylistic choice. All the performances are consistent. There is plenty of scenery to chew for the whole cast.
By the time Act IV arrived the performances seemed ‘spot on’. I’m sure this is, in part, because I’d been seeing it for 3 hours. It is also because that style is perfectly suited to the music as it develops toward the climax. The text points that direction as well. I was confused by our heroine describing her existence as a “feast of fear” when nothing bad had happened yet. One character or another said some variation of “Oh, the horror” in almost every scene. Later on, when Francesca tells her would-be lover he should “die like a galley-slave rowing a ship called Despair” it begins to feel familiar. By the time she tells her lover he has “broken her soul like a stem” and he is promising “to take her to where all is oblivion and time will be their slave” I was fully invested. To quote a line from one of my favorite musicals; “This sort of talk just doesn’t come up in normal conversation”. There are only two ways to say (or sing) lines like that; tongue-in-cheek or over-the-top. They made the right choice.