We will hear Rachmaninoff’s one-act with Roberta Alexander and Magda Olivero in the final scene of Zandonai’s hothouse signature opera.

The Russian composer’s problematic short work deals as much with Dante and Virgil, the Inferno’s central figures, as it does with the heated love triangle that has long captured the imaginations of so many artists, composers and playwrights. When his opera finally does focus on Francesca, it depicts the celebrated scene in which the unhappy wife and her bewitched brother-in-law read together the story of another pair of doomed lovers, Guinevere and Lancelot.

As they are swept away by their long-delayed passions, Francesca’s husband bursts in and kills his wife and brother. I’m unsure where the murderer ends up in Hell but Dante and Virgil encounter Francesca and Paolo (both historical figures from the poet’s era) in the second circle eternally buffeted by strong winds that mirror their unstoppable lust.

How thrilling it was to witness Alexander’s Met return after almost exactly 25 years as the Fifth Maid on the opening night of the Patrice Chéreau Elektra! Her quietly intense presence throughout the evening transformed an ordinarily brief though consequential role into something quite haunting.

Though she had previously sung nearly 80 performances at the house from 1983-1991, I only caught her there in one of her celebrated Mozart roles: a moving Donna Elvira as part of a powerhouse trio of ladies with Cheryl Studer and Marie McLaughlin.

Zandonai tells the lovers’s tragic story at much greater length but today’s excerpt features just that same bloody scene from one of a series of galas that Olivero gave in Amsterdam during the refulgent Indian summer of her career.

The 1967 concert also included the Violetta-Germont scene and complete third act from La Traviata. After the Verdi, Olivero performed the final scenes of both Giordano’s Fedora and Francesca da Rimini. The Dutch clearly loved to experience the dying Olivero as six years later she followed up with another triple-death-stravaganza during which she breathed her last as Margherita (Mefistofele), Adriana and Wally!

Francesca was Olivero’s second triumph in her legendary “comeback” year of 1959. The celebrated La Scala-Zandonai revival opposite Mario Del Monaco preceded by some months the Naples Adriana Lecouvreur opposite Giulietta Simionato, Franco Corelli and Ettore Bastianini. She and Del Monaco would years later record Francesca highlights for Decca.

Rachmaninoff: Francesca da Rimini
13 November 1982

Francesca — Roberta Alexander
Paolo — Adrian de Peyer
Lanceotto Malatesta — Don Garrard
Dante: Ad van Baasbank
The shade of Virgil: Henk Smit

Omroep Orkest & Groot Omroepkoor
Conductor – Edward Downes

Zandonai: Francesca da Rimini – final scene
Concertgebouw Amsterdam
6 May 1967

Francesca — Magda Olivero
Paolo — Doro Antonioli
Gianciotto — Aldo Protti

Groot Omroeporkest

Conductor — Fulvio Vernizzi

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