Ricordi wanted him. Toscanini approved. So, reportedly, did Puccini himself. His son Tonio, however, vetoed Riccardo Zandonai and the composer never tackled the unfinished Turandot, a decision leaving a tantalizing “what if?” in its wake. Zandonai had already proven himself a master of orchestration and at depicting the lurid, the exotic and the strange. Like Puccini and more than his contemporaries, he had incorporated the influences of Wagner, Debussy and Strauss into his own compositional style. No one was better equipped and none of his operas point to what might have been more than 1914’s Francesca da Rimini, with its complex and contradictory female lead, violent passions, sadism and grotesquerie mirroring some of the same aspects in Turandot. Deutsche Oper Berlin’s production brings this home and invites us to look at Zandonai’s opera anew, unencumbered by traditional trappings.

Sara Jakubiak (Francesca) and Jonathan Tetelman (Paolo)
© Monika Rittershaus

By stripping the opera of period sets and costumes, the production showcases the voluptuous allure and power of Zandonai’s music. Denying the eyes, it enlists the ears to lend the color in the orchestra and voices to the black and white palette for sets and costumes Christof Loy and his production team have adopted. The sole splashes of color – Francesca’s salmon-hued satin slip and the handmaids’ Act 3 floral print dresses – become all the more striking and sensual against this backdrop. The only drawback is strictly stream-related: the unit set renders the white subtitles illegible whenever they pop up against a white background.

Jonathan Tetelman (Paolo) and Sara Jakubiak (Francesca)
© Monika Rittershaus

Limiting the visual also serves to heighten the drama. The focus remains on the characters, what they are doing and what they are feeling, not on what they’re wearing. Loy further concentrates attention by dividing the opera into two parts with one intermission. Act 1 flows directly into Act 2 with a mimed scene of the deception which leads to the signing of the marriage contract. Traditional cuts, mostly in Act 2, remain. The battle scene is strikingly staged with the enclosed verandah up a few stairs and through a wide arch becoming the battlements, the Claude Lorraine landscape in the background obscured by the fog of war. Waves of men crash into the wings and rebound back to fall bloodied and spent.

Sara Jakubiak (Francesca)
© Monika Rittershaus

The brief appearance of a balaclava doesn’t immediately yield its relevance, yet Loy’s directorial touches amplify rather than distract. His most thought-provoking departure recasts the minstrel as a silent Everyman after his first and only scene, appearing in a doorway or hovering in the background throughout the two parts. He frames the opera, the first to appear, standing still with his back to the audience, then assuming the same pose but outside the tall windows of the verandah at the end. His grunge outfit undergoes subtle changes of color until the final scene finds him in doublet and breeches, but still rocking his beanie.

Similarities to Loy’s earlier Deutsche Oper production of Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane do not seem casual, even down to the casting of his Heliane, Sara Jakubiak, as Francesca. Her plummy middle anchors a voice which blossoms and brightens as it rises and she does not hold back. Despite all the demands made on her and the strapping and equally admirable Jonathan Tetelman as Paolo, they both sounded stronger as the opera progressed. Act 3’s duet was white hot with passion but intimate thanks to a variety of dynamics and sensitive phrasing from both singers. Pulling back to a long shot for some climatic moments in the first part did not serve them well, however, undercutting impact.

Sara Jakubiak (Francesca) and Ivan Inverardi (Gianciotto)
© Monika Rittershaus

Ivan Iverardi was an imposing and sympathetic Gianciotto despite being easily manipulated by his sadistic younger brother, Charles Workman’s Malatestino. The volcanic rage stoked by his repulsive sibling’s Iago-like insinuations exploded in a powerful display of vocalism. Memorable characterizations and expressive voices were the hallmarks of the rest of the cast as well, from Francesca’s handmaids to Dean Murphy’s minstrel. Particularly noteworthy, Alexandra Hutton who plays the sickly, soon-to-die Samaritana as if she were halfway between living and dead, even her voice sounding like it came from another world, and Samuel Dale Johnson and Andrew Dickinson as Ostasio and his obsequious flunky, Ser Toldo. The eloquent chorus was offstage in a rehearsal room so the sound engineers managed their prominence in the vocal mix.

The plush sound and ripe colors from Carlo Rizzi and the Deutsche Oper orchestra cushioned the singers and painted the scenes, bringing Zandonai’s adroit fusion of the archaic and the new to resplendent life. If you have dismissed this opera as overstuffed kitsch in the past, you might want to take a look at this production. It could well change your mind.

This performance was reviewed from the Deutsche Oper Berlin video stream