Of Love and Violence
Director Christof Loy in Conversation about FRANCESCA DA RIMINI
Dorothea Hartmann: After Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s THE MIRACLE OF HELIANE, you suggested FRANCESCA DA RIMINI for your next work at the Deutsch Oper Berlin. Why?
Christof Loy: I am often asked whether I wish to direct cycles of works, for example a series of Donizettis or Bellinis in sequence. That, however, is not a concept I find interesting. I am looking for similarities in content. I always imagined Korngold’s HELIANE in conjunction with other operas, and Zandonai’s FRANCESCA was certainly one of them. The central element of these works is the female image, which early 20th-century musical theatre subjected to a veritable “examination”: of course, the tales include the familiar types such as the femme fatale of the fin de siècle, but there are also other forms of self-determination not defined exclusively by sexuality. In this regard, FRANCESCA DA RIMINI was an ideal next opera to follow HELIANE, and there will be another, Franz Schreker’s THE TREASURE SEEKER. Like Heliane, Francesca seems a victim at first. In Act I, Francesca endures what the men of her own family and that into which she has married have planned for her, almost passively. But then she finds an active way of dealing with it, one that is all her own. Heliane is a mystery when it comes to her behaviour and her unconventional notions of love and morality – mysterious not just to the figures in the piece, but also for us today. Francesca raises a similar number of questions.
Dorothea Hartmann: Both of them – Heliane and Francesca – are adulteresses. The question why and how they do that, and especially how they and society deal with the fact, defines the potential of their stories. What do society’s norms mean to Francesca?
Christof Loy: Francesca is not interested in what others think of her. In this, she is very consistent. The double life of a “classical” adulteress is heightened in her case, as she has married into a family of three brothers and not only lives with all of them, but has very different forms of romantic relationships with each of them. These relationships actually overlap in some ways. It is also a form of taking revenge on the men for their betrayal in Act I. However, I do not consider Francesca’s “Lulu existence” as contradicting the highly excessive love she feels for Paolo. To me, that is the special and mysterious element of this figure. And how we react when someone refuses to live by the moral patterns from which we construct a safety net for our lives, that is still a valid question today.
Dorothea Hartmann: You talk about an act of revenge: does the injustice she suffers in Act I, does this deceit transform her from victim to perpetrator?
Christof Loy: Francesca is not entirely innocent from the beginning; even in Act I she does not seem merely a naïve victim to me. She enters this arranged marriage fully conscious, fearing the worst: a marriage without love and happiness. She takes a fateful view of her future and even has premonitions of death. And then she is thrown off course: for the man presented to her as her future husband seems to her the ideal embodiment of her beloved. She thought her bridegroom would be a messenger of death – and then this shining hero appears. Just a few moments later, however, she is back at the edge of the abyss, for this ideal beloved, of all people, deceives and lies to her. One might describe the structure of the piece thus: we meet Francesca in Act I with only an inkling of all the things that she conceals. We see a vessel whose lid she herself keeps tightly shut. Then Act II follows, in which her own situation is mirrored by the civil war situation in Rimini. It is almost like an explosion: as if the various particles of her soul were blown into the air. Francesca develops feelings of enmity and hatred for the man she saw as her ideal beloved for a second. In Act III then, she no longer struggles against the fact that her love for Paolo is out of control, spiritually and physically. This great and unconditional passion of hers is combined with a sharp mind, expressed mainly in the intellectual ping-pong of some of the dialogues. And then there are moments of premonition and illumination when she seems almost prophetic. It is a complex web: an inclination toward emotional and physical extremes combined with enormous intellectual prowess. And then there is also a connection heavenwards, with spirituality. This condensate of components would be enough to tear any person apart.
Dorothea Hartmann: D’Annunzio’s text is replete with references to art and literature. What role does art play in FRANCESCA DA RIMINI?
Christof Loy: Art usually means sublimation: in exploring art, one acts out things one no longer acts upon, or never has acted upon. This is also the case for the reading scene in Act III. In the story of the lovers Guinevere and Lancelot, Francesca and Paolo find their own longing reflected. And there, for a moment, art and life intertwine. The story becomes reality, the imagined kiss their own reality. In Act IV this is followed by Francesca’s final decision to actively live out her love for Paolo. This makes Francesca more uninhibited, also in toying with the other brothers who are in love with her.
Dorothea Hartmann: What happens there? In Act IV we see three brothers in love with one woman. Is that the consequence of the drink Francesca serves them in Act II – comparable to Brangäne’s love potion in TRISTAN AND ISOLDE?
Christof Loy: I think the fact that they all drink from the same glass is a sign, a symbol for something that has been hidden inside the three brothers. And my interpretation is that Francesca further inflames and stokes the passion she senses within the brothers. D’Annunzio was inspired by his lover, the actress Eleonora Duse, when writing the text. Their romantic relationship, both passionate and complex, almost a form of mutual emotional torture, is also reflected in the figure of Francesca.
Dorothea Hartmann: The nature of the brothers is gradually revealed, especially in their encounters with Francesca. After the great deceit the brothers have practiced on her, Francesca manages to open up their souls. They reveal themselves to her without pretence.
Christof Loy: Yes, that is a great talent. The brothers not only show their true personalities, they also act out on them in their moments with Francesca. Gianciotto with his certain physical deformation wears a protective shield that can be robust or even vulgar – combined with a very soft heart when he meets his wife. Paolo is diametrically opposed, suffering from his superficial appearance as “il Bello” [the Handsome]. He is perceived as beautiful but lacking in depth and character. The truth, however, is that he has a tendency towards emotional breakdowns and great depth of soul. He only reveals this dilemma when he is with Francesca. But then it all comes out, entirely unfiltered. He is actually the victim, the innocent figure who is crushed. For Paolo glows and flourishes in his love for Francesca. He is really a bearer of hope, but there is no room for him. We first meet the third brother, Malatestino, when he loses an eye in battle. At the same time, he speaks of his murderous impulses. This is a first indication of his perverse inclination to feel physical desire when someone suffers. Here, he secretly jibes with one of Francesca’s traits. In general, we are dealing here with families in which torture and murder is part of their surroundings and conscience. This is also how Francesca has been socialized.
Dorothea Hartmann: In D’Annunzio’s text, Malatestino’s sadism and the brutal battle action in Act II also appear as indications of a pre-fascist fascination with violence. How much of a role does the time of the opera’s writing and first performance – just before the outbreak of World War I – play, to your mind?
Christof Loy: On the one hand, Zandonai trains his gaze far back, on an archaic past which toys with elements of the middle ages and renaissance and cannot be pinpointed. Here, the madrigal stands for beauty. He juxtaposes this with excessive, rough passages which were irritating to contemporary ears and have nothing to do with mellifluous harmony. The faraway era of the renaissance was also chosen by Zandonai as a reflection of the decadent upper class shortly before World War I. Within its elevated rank, it determined the fate of other people, of a people. This is illustrated mainly in the few scenes featuring the chorus. For this production, circumstances have forced us not forego using the chorus on stage, focusing even more on the intimate chamber play. This reinforces the aspect of an almost pathologically incestuous bond between people who have lost a healthy, measured relationship with humanity. Francesca herself is also affected: she is a strange breed, with energies pushing in all directions. Ultimately, everything ends in hatred, betrayal and a double murder. What we are witnessing, really, is a congregation of the damned. Luchino Visconti had an instinct for such figures.
Dorothea Hartmann: In a letter, Zandonai wrote of his notion of writing an “Italian Tristan”. Indeed, there are many references to Wagner’s TRISTAN AND ISOLDE in the opera: not only the courtship by proxy, the betrayed husband, the dubious potion, but also the image of the inimical “world of day” and the glorification of “the night” in Paolo’s aria “Nemica ebbi la luce”. How far should we consider Francesca and Paolo kindred spirits of Tristan and Isolde?
Christof Loy: Tristan hates the world of the day and seeks out the night, which to him is equivalent to the path towards death. Paolo similarly walks the line between two worlds, identifying with the realm of night rather than with life during daytime. During the day, after all, he cannot be honest and must hide his feelings. The figures of Isolde and Francesca have less in common. Isolde symbolizes life. She fights death and tries to bring Tristan back to life. This will to live drives her to the end, which is – despite the designation of “Liebestod” – not really about Isolde’s death at all. Ultimately, she is a survivor who must deal with her memories. Francesca is different and more contradictory: she moves within a violent world, and it has left its traces upon her. Francesca’s potential for hatred, her lust for power and dominance are coupled with a great romantic passion and the longing to connect with another person from the depths of her soul.
Translation: Alexa Nieschlag