“There is no greater sorrow than to recall happiness in times of misery.” Thus begins Francesca da Rimini’s account to Dante Aligheri of how she and Paolo Malatesta came to be condemned to the Second Circle of Hell, a place reserved for lustful sinners. Considering its relatively brief mention in Dante’s Inferno, the legend of Paolo and Francesca has drawn a huge number of artistic responses, not least Rodin’s sculpture The Kiss (originally title Francesca da Rimini) and paintings by Gustave Doré, Ary Scheffer, Alexandre Cabanel and, appropriately enough, Dante Gabriel Rossetti.

La mort de Francesca da Rimini et de Paolo Malatesta by Alexandre Cabanel
© Public domain

The lovers’ representation in music is even more prolific, most famously in Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s tempestuous symphonic poem Francesca da Rimini. Yet Tchaikovsky’s Francesca could well have been composed as an opera instead. His younger brother, Modest, had suggested the subject in 1876 and Pyotr Ilyich considered an operatic setting to a “charming libretto” by Konstantin Zvantsev, but later that year he changed direction. While travelling to Paris in June, he wrote again to his brother, “This evening in my coach I read the 4th Canto [he meant the 5th] of the Inferno, and was inflamed with a desire to write a symphonic poem on Francesca.”

But Modest must have tucked his idea away for safekeeping, for when the young Sergei Rachmaninov asked for his help in deciding a new opera project, possibly based on Shakespeare’s Richard II, Modest suggested Francesca da Rimini instead and proposed writing the libretto himself. Modest was a dramatist and translator and had form as a librettist – including his brother’s operas Pique Dame and Iolanta

Rachmaninov already had his first opera under his belt, Aleko, a graduation piece (1892) which drew much praise from Pyotr Ilyich himself. It was actually on Tchaikovsky’s recommendation that the opera premiered at the Bolshoi Theatre in May 1893. But it took a long time for Rachmaninov to get around to composing another. Indeed, for a long time, he composed very little at all. The disastrous premiere of his First Symphony in 1897, demolished by the composer and critic César Cui, led the young composer into depression and a severe case of writer’s block, “like the man who had suffered a stroke and for a long time had lost the use of his head and hands,” as he described it. 

Sergei Rachmaninov with singers of the first production, G.A. Baklanov and N.V. Salina
© Public domain

Rachmaninov’s fortunes changed when he took up a conducting post at railway tycoon Savva Mamontov’s Private Opera in Moscow, where he met the great bass Fyodor Chaliapin and resolved to compose another opera. Modest Tchaikovsky even beefed up the role of Lanceotto – Francesca’s husband – to satisfy Chaliapin (although he ended up never singing it). In 1900, Rachmaninov started by composing the love duet – part of the creative rebirth he experienced thanks to his sessions with hypnotherapist Dr Nikolai Dahl – but he did not resume work on it until 1904, when he urgently needed a double bill partner for his next opera, The Miserly Knight.

It was not plain sailing. Dissatisfied with Modest’s libretto, there was a testy exchange of letters. Rachmaninov felt the love duet was too short... so compensated by composing a 51-bar orchestral passage to represent “the kiss” between Francesca and Paolo. In fairness to Modest, Dante didn’t exactly provide him with a huge amount of source material. 

But who were Francesca and Paolo? In Dante’s original text, as he and the shade of Virgil enter the Second Circle of Hell, the poet recognises Francesca… as well he might, for her story was well known. She was the daughter of a Ravenna nobleman and in 1275 she married the crippled Lanceotto Malatesta, a political marriage to quell the civil unrest between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. When Lanciotto discovered that she was having an affair with his younger brother, Paolo, Malatesta killed them both. Dante even had a personal connection to her story, having once lived in the house of Francesca’s nephew in Ravenna.

Les ombres de Francesca et de Paolo apparaissent à Dante et à Virgile by Ary Scheffer
© Public domain

Dante himself appears in Rachmaniov’s Prologue. Heading into the Second Circle, he and Virgil’s ghost hear a wordless chorus of the damned… wordless because Modest had not provided them with any text! But it's a striking effect, the wailing, groaning chorus anticipating the third movement of his Edgar Allan Poe-inspired choral symphony, The Bells. In these gloomy, swirling mists, trapped in an eternal whirlwind, Dante sees two lovers, clinging to each other, and invites them to tell their story. “There is no greater sorrow than to recall happiness in times of misery,” they sing. In Silviu Purcărete’s 2015 Nancy production, Paolo and Francesca both clutch their own skeletons. 

Clouds disperse and the scene changes. We’re suddenly in Malatesta’s palace. Against a nervy, orchestral background, Lanceotto is given a dark, brooding soliloquy… one in a long line of dark, brooding soliloquies for Russian baritones and basses (think Boris Godunov or, indeed, of Rachmaninov’s own Aleko). Lanceotto is deformed and knows that his wife, Francesca, does not love him. She was tricked into the wedding, thinking she would be marrying Paolo, Malatesta’s handsome younger brother. Lanceotto voices his suspicions and resolves to lay a trap for the lovers. 

Francesca appears (with a tender, five-note descending leitmotif) and Lanceotto questions her. Although she vows obedience to him, she explains that she cannot love him. Lanceotto announces that he is off to war, telling Francesca that he will not return until after the battle is over. 

A passionate love scene follows. Paolo reads Francesca the story of Sir Lancelot and Guinevere, during which he declares his own love for her. Francesca sings that although earthly kisses are forbidden to them, their reward will be heavenly bliss in the afterlife (cue a beautiful, floating soprano aria).

But Paolo does not wish to wait for paradise, wanting only the “burning delight of a kiss”. After a long – orchestral – embrace, Lanceotto surprises the lovers and strikes them down, after which the lovers are heard in a swift epilogue, explaining to Dante “that day we read no further!” before they recede into the mists.

Rachmaninov’s opera itself can be criticised for its structural deficiencies. Its lengthy Prologue feels out of proportion to the two short scenes and epilogue that follow, and that central action is largely static. It could be argued that the opera’s greatest moments are purely orchestral – Rachmaninov even called it a “symphonic opera” – due to its long interludes. Perhaps there’s a reason that Pyotr Ilyich opted for a symphonic poem instead! But there are some wonderfully atmospheric, emotionally turbulent moments in the best Tchaikovskian style that make it an opera worth hearing.