In The Divine Comedy’s circle of Hell reserved for “carnal sinners,” Dante encounters Francesca and Paolo, historical 13th-century lovers murdered by Francesca’s husband, Paolo’s brother Gianciotto. Their story, which left Dante “overcome with pity,” has inspired numerous composers, including Liszt, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, none more persuasively than Riccardo Zandonai, whose melody-soaked, intensely dramatic 1914 opera deserves much greater renown. (In 1984 the Metropolitan Opera, with stars Renata Scotto and Plácido Domingo, brought it to Toronto’s International Festival; the DVD of this vocally and visually resplendent production is still available.)
Unlike the Met’s historically appropriate medieval splendour, this 2021 Deutsche Oper Berlin production is senselessly updated to the early 20th century, with Guelfs and Ghibellines somehow still at war, absurdly still fighting with crossbows. Silent actors wander around without apparent function or purpose; the chorus, due to COVID restrictions, sings offstage.
In contrast to the misconceived staging, this production’s musical values are superlative. Soprano Sara Jakubiak, the radiant Heliane in the Deutsche Oper DVD of Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane, is electrifying as the tormented Francesca. Jonathan Tetelman’s gleaming, clarion tenor and tall-dark-and-handsome looks make him an ideal Paolo, known as “Il Bello” (the Handsome). Heavy-set baritone Ivan Inverandi’s Gianciotto is suitably coarse in voice and appearance, though neither “crippled” nor “demonic” as described in the libretto. They and the other 12 fine soloists, together with Carlo Rizzi’s urgent, surging conducting of Zandonai’s impassioned score, deliver immensely rewarding operatic pleasures.