Between “Tristan” and Verismo

Art Nouveau, Decadentismo and the Aesthetics of Violence in Zandonai’s Dante Opera ... An Essay by Anselm Gerhard

Even today, Paolo and Francesca remain familiar to almost any Italian. The episode from the fifth canto of Dante’s Comedia is mandatory reading in middle school. This classic of world literature recounts how the two of them roast in hell. This is why: Paolo Malatesta was reading a book with his sister-in-law Francesca da Polenta during a quiet hour. When the story, the “Book of Galehaut” describing a tale of Arthurian legend, spoke of a passionate kiss, Paolo kissed his brother’s wife. When she meets Dante in the inferno, Francesca remembers: “Quel giorno più non vi leggemmo avante” (“That day, we read no further”).

In Italy, this archetypal tale of passionate love is part of collective memory – like the tale of Romeo and Juliet is in other countries; originating in Italy, it was only given its ultimate form by William Shakespeare. Therefore, anyone staging the story of Paolo and Francesca knew that the audience would require no explanation of context. They might write literature about literature.


Fantasies of Violence and their Realization

This is exactly what Gabriele d’Annunzio undertook in the second year of the 20th century. On December 9, 1901 his verse drama Francesca da Rimini was first performed in Rome. Born in 1863 in Pescara in south-eastern Italy, its author was far more than a writer. As a novelist and poet, he is one of the outstanding representatives of decadentismo – by European measure. The son of a rich landowner was a parvenu by the standards of the time, his real surname being Rapagnetta. His father, however, had paid to be adopted by an uncle named D’Annunzio, which had the ring of nobility. Moreover, the insatiable Nietzsche reader considered himself an aristocrat of the spirit, well beyond all the rules made for lesser mortals. D’Annunzio envisaged himself as an Übermensch – serving not only the greater fame of his genius, but also that of his fatherland.

During World War I he caused a stir with a daring test of courage: on August 9, 1918 he commanded a squadron of eight planes, taking off near Padua and setting course for Vienna – with him as a passenger in a plane that had been rebuilt as a two-seater. There, they dropped thousands of leaflets. After almost seven hours’ flight time and more than 800 kilometres in Austrian-controlled airspace, D’Annunzio and his pilots returned unharmed; the humiliation of Austria’s air-raid defences was widely commented upon internationally.

After the end of the war, D’Annunzio was one of the most radical protagonists of a politics that was not content to annex territories formerly under Austrian rule, but either entirely or overwhelmingly Italian-speaking (such as Trento and Trieste). D’Annunzio – and many others – wanted to push the eastern border of Italy far into what was to become Yugoslavia. In a surprise coup, he occupied Rijeka (Fiume, in Italian) in 1919, creating the preconditions for the port city – that was to become part of Croatia in 1945 – to be granted to the Kingdom of Italy, even if only a minority (albeit a substantial one) of the population spoke Italian there.

The Condottiere had some sympathy for Mussolini’s takeover in October of 1922; however, their relationship was strained from the start. The poet had withdrawn into his own realm as early as 1921, renting and then buying a villa that had belonged to a German art historian (and husband of one of Cosima Wagner’s daughters) disowned after the war. He turned this estate, breath-takingly located above the western shore of Lake Garda, into the “Vittoriale degli Italiani”, the “Monument of Victory of the Italians”. The “Duce” soon supported him financially, grasping the chance to side-line the interfering poet in this golden cage. There, D’Annunzio resided for the last 17 years of his life, transforming the gardens into a park. The murderous years of 1915 to 1918 (more than 600,000 Italian soldiers had “fallen in the field”; civilian losses were similarly high) appear here as a glowing triumph of the (Italian) will and (Italian) technology: a plane, a torpedo boat 88 metres long and an anti-submarine motorboat feature as relics in this theatrical landscaping. Words cannot adequately convey the effect of this silent tableau. Anyone who has seen it understands how closely aestheticism, futurism, social Darwinism and fascism were associated in Italy during the years before and after Mussolini’s assumption of power.


“Unstillable Desires“ and “Self-Idolatry”

D’Annunzio’s drama Francesca da Rimini is characterized by a similar mix of narcissistic presumption and a sensuous instinct for the aesthetics of overwhelming stagecraft. Its world premiere became a scandal, but the kind of scandal that could only benefit its controversial creator. Like the 1861 Paris premiere of Richard Wagner’s TANNHÄUSER or the 1913 premiere of Stravinsky’s LE SACRE DU PRINTEMPS, it finally catapulted D’Annunzio’s name to fame.

To his English translator Arthur Symons, the poet from Pescara had “learned quite a bit from Wagner, and perhaps not the best of what Wagner had to teach, in his overwhelming wealth of details, in his insistence on so many unessential elements, in his repetitions, in which he came close to inventing Wagner’s leitmotif”. The five-act play lasted almost four hours without intervals. Moreover, given that intervals were customary after each act, those members of the audience who remained until the end were subjected for almost six hours to the mesmerizing sound of D’Annunzio’s verse and the acting skills of his lover, Eleonora Duse.

Like his idol Wagner, D’Annunzio aimed for a cycle: two additional humongous dramas, of which only one, Parisina, was ultimately written to complement Francesca da Rimini, forming the trilogy I Malatesti. Nor was the German translation completed, which no lesser than Stefan George had planned to undertake. However, only four months after its world premiere, an Italian theatre troupe including Eleonora Duse introduced the piece in Vienna. The critic Armin Friedmann delivered a lucid assessment, in words that seem almost prophetic for 1902: “His unusual talent for words helps playwright d’Annunzio little; it proves an obstacle, as it impedes the rapid flow of the action. He lends […] most of his figures […] the rushing power of his rhetoric. […] Each thought wears a golden suit of armour […], the unstillable desires for dominance of this strong renaissance man break all boundaries, tear down all dams; unquenchable desires for beauty, power, fame and enjoyment fill and inebriate him, driving him towards indulgent excess. We only ever hear his voice and his moods, his tender yearnings and wild desires […] – the echo of ceaseless self-idolatry.” After the world premiere, the playwright Luigi Pirandello wrote: “I believe I have never suffered so much at the theatre. […] The tragedy’s tale is hamstrung, suffocated and splintered by the untamed river of D’Annunzio’s rhetoric.”


“The Style of the Time”

Even the harshest critics, however, were bowled over by the care taken in the historicized ornamentation in choice of words and decoration: “He describes the style of the time with wonderful accuracy,” – thus Friedmann once more – an era which “gave birth to the coarsest torturers, the blood-thirstiest small-time tyrants and the sweetest singers and musicians”. What went almost unmentioned in the press, on the other hand, was another outstanding quality of D’Annunzio’s drama – perhaps because it was so diametrically opposed to the basic convictions of this era: beyond all machismo, the poet paints a title heroine who is a strong, a very strong woman. In his version, Francesca is responsible for the adultery – a detail underplayed in Dante. She lives for the realization of her desires, with the power of conviction, thus shattering the gender mould of an epoch which did not even allow women to vote. She may bemoan her guilt, but in the end she feels liberated, even if the “credit” for this liberation, “naturally”, goes to her lover Paolo: “Risvegliata m’hai, liberata da ogni angoscia.” (“You have awakened me, liberated me from any fear.”)

Not least, D’Annunzio here overemploys the art of the ellipsis, the rhetorical figure of “elision” of which Dante had already offered such an overwhelming example when alluding that “on that day” the two had “read no further”. Used to excess, however, the stylistic device leaves the figures highly abstract. At the same time, it creates an empty space which almost begs to be filled. For example with music.


A Question of Time

Thus, it was only a question of time before D’Annunzio’s tragedy – which was, incidentally, first performed at an opera house – would be transformed into an opera. But how? Compared to spoken word, language when sung occupies at least twice, usually more than three times as much time. In order to abbreviate the text to dimensions palatable to musical theatre, then, approximately three quarters of D’Annunzio’s text had to be cut. Tito Ricordi, the owner of Italy’s pre-eminent music publishing house, tried his hand at this nearly impossible task. Of approximately 4,000 verses, only close to 1,000 remained – incidentally, when tackling the challenge, the editor had FALSTAFF, Verdi’s last opera, also published by him, in mind.

When the self-assured poet was read this drastically truncated version in Paris in 1912, in the presence of a young composer selected by Ricordi, fear of his wrath abounded. However, as the composer recalled 26 years later, D’Annunzio shook Ricordi’s hand and said, “literally”: “Bravo, Tito; you are truly a man of the theatre; your short version is perfect and it is my wish that your name appear next to mine when the libretto is printed”.

This report seems rather too harmonic to claim credibility. However, there was money at stake, lots of money. At the time, the use of literature on the opera stage had a financial potential we would recognize today from the film industry. And D’Annunzio always needed money. In the context of subsequent negotiations about the rights for a silent film, Ricordi would lament to a confidante in Paris: “D’Annunzio is so strapped for cash that he has put the knife to my neck (I can find no other turn of phrase).” Since Zandonai was determined to compose the opera, the poet received the 25,000 francs he demanded, an exorbitant sum for the time, while the composer forewent the customary advance. Incidentally, the fact that D’Annunzio set more store by the expected royalties than his artistic pride also explains why he frequently praised Zandonai’s opera, while never bothering to actually attend a performance.

Furthermore, radical abbreviation was certainly the smaller evil compared to rewriting. Ricordi’s libretto is a flagrant example of a development which was new at the time and would later come to be known as “literary opera”: the adaptation of an opera text using only the words of the original. FRANCESCA DA RIMINI is one of the first successful examples of operas in which “only” the volume, but not the original wording of a literary text was altered. After first experiments in Russia and in Mascagni’s GUGLIELMO RATCLIFF (1890), the earliest prominent examples include Debussy’s PELLÉAS ET MÉLISANDE (1902) and Richard Strauss’ SALOME (1905). One should, however, not fall into the trap of believing that cuts are not an adaptation – even if these were rarely as radical as in this opera, or almost a quarter-century later in Alban Berg’s LULU.


Zandonai and the Treatment of Time

Tito Ricordi was not only “a man of the theatre” as an advocate of brevity. The publisher had an unerring instinct for those composers in possession of a certain flair that was essential for success on stage: the art of pacing, a masterful sense of timing in scenes that might propel the action forward or offer a retarding element. In 1884 Tito’s father Giulio Ricordi had signed a composer for his publishing business who had mastered this art like no other: Giacomo Puccini, a complete unknown at the time. Compared to the musical dramaturgy of his colleague, 25 years his senior, Zandonai’s seems less nervous at first glance. However, despite the almost epic declamation of the august verses, FRANCESCA DA RIMINI never suffers from the impression of time being overly distended. As in Puccini’s works, highest dramatic tension is created by a well-thought out use of a few moments of calm within a dense succession of turning-points in the action, some of them quite unexpected. Ricordi had intuitively recognized the potential of this rather reticent character. And, to add another comment on Puccini: one wishes that the publisher had also been able to convince Puccini’s son of Zandonai’s potential after Puccini had passed away in 1924. Surely, the composer first chosen for the task of completing the final scene of TURANDOT would have delivered a more convincing completion of the fragment than Franco Alfano, who was ultimately entrusted with the job. After all, Zandonai, born in 1883, had one advantage over all his colleagues (with the exception of Puccini himself): his productive examination of scores by Claude Debussy and Richard Strauss had given him a masterful hand at orchestral treatment, which cannot be said for Umberto Giordano, his teacher Pietro Mascagni or indeed Alfano.

This instinct for sound, the sensual treatment of all the finesse of modern instrumentation and also a use of dissonance that goes far beyond conventional late-romantic harmonies – all these are obvious even from the very first measures of FRANCESCA DA RIMINI. In the opening, Zandonai unfolds a shimmering pianissimo carpet of sound: flutes, piccolo and second violins oscillate in syncopations between the notes of G and A, which are adjacent and therefore produce a dissonance when played simultaneously. The first violins add to this a trill between G and F-sharp, producing a kind of mini-cluster of F-sharp-G-A in the high register. This ethereal sound is “grounded” only in the tenth measure, when a timpani roll on the low G occurs. From the stage background, the minstrel’s instrument is heard, a viola playing broad arpeggios in the ancient key of G-minor. Soon thereafter, the curtain opens and this focus on G is once again scattered.

The viola arpeggios return when the minstrel tries to sing a song about “the great love between good Tristan and fair Isolde” and “how Isolde drinks a draught with Tristan”, such a “perfect draught that it leads the lovers into death”. But it also speaks of Lancelot and, above all, recounts how Parsifal “tasted the blood of our Lord Jesus”. This breath-taking montage evokes an imaginary medieval period, with obvious reference to Dante’s incidental mention of Paolo and Francesca’s reading material, but especially to Richard Wagner’s musical dramas.

Unlike Wagner, however, Zandonai was already familiar with the historical and philological study of the music of the minstrels and troubadours. While at first the modern viola stands for this faraway sound of times past, the iridescent orchestral postlude to Act I actually features a “historical” instrument, the viola pomposa, which in this “Largo dolcissimo” intones its melody in undulating D-major above the symphony orchestra’s arabesques – “alter Duft aus Märchenzeit” (ancient perfume of fairy-tale times), as Pierrot lunaire, composed by Arnold Schoenberg in Berlin at the exact same time, would have it.

Obviously, this has nothing to do with “authentic” ancient music. However, Zandonai demonstrates how important D’Annunzio’s attempts to evoke medieval colour were to him – a colour that seems far more sensual here than the slightly anaemic-seeming neo-rococo with which many opera composers had experimented even during the 19th century, and which would continue after World War I in Stravinsky’s so-called “neoclassicism”. However, Zandonai also maintained enormous distance from contemporary Italian opera, often labelled “verismo”. Unlike Puccini and the realism of other contemporaries, his dialogue is not beholden to the vernacular, but always remains sublime – D’Annunzio’s verse left no other option. And yet, despite the pathos-laden gestures, there are only a few, masterfully chosen points of calm, resembling Wagner’s occasionally contemplative dramaturgy – one example is the mesmerizing sound of the Act I finale, already mentioned above: there, the colour of an imaginary medieval era is woven into a texture reminiscent of the “Forest Murmurs” in Wagner’s SIEGFRIED and the “Good Friday Music” in his PARSIFAL.


Between TRISTAN and “Verismo“

At the turn of the 19th into the 20th century, even in Italy there was no avoiding Wagner. This was already true of D’Annunzio’s tragedy. The symbolism of night and day is even more pronounced in Zandonai’s opera than in the text of the five-act play, clearly echoing the second act of Wagner’s opera about another instance of literarily stylized adultery. In the spring of 1913, Zandonai gathered up all his courage, travelling especially to Arcachon near Bordeaux, where D’Annunzio resided, to ask “his” poet for new verses. “My demand, which grew out of a purely musical need, may have seemed daring,” – thus Zandonai recalled – “since my goal was to create a new element for the tragedy. D’Annunzio immediately understood me, […] and three hours later he had invented and written the wonderful verses […] which appear in the third act of the libretto.”

From a dramaturgical perspective, this additional monologue for Paolo (“Nemica ebbi la luce, amica ebbi la notte” – “Day was my enemy, night my friend”) with its seventeen verses is poetically elegant – but it is pure operatic convention. Much as D’Annunzio’s language toys with motifs from Wagner’s TRISTAN UND ISOLDE, Zandonai’s orchestral treatment is equally beholden to the great model. At no other juncture in the opera does Zandonai’s “vocalità” approach the Italian tradition so obviously: even in the melodic detail of Paolo’s entrance on a high E and the accentuation of the high G, the model, Canio’s monologue “Vesti la giubba” with its refrain “Ridi Pagliaccio” from Leoncavallo’s PAGLIACCI of 1892, is discernible. Zandonai, however, manages the incredible: this proximity to so-called “verismo” at a key point in his opera does not appear as a clash of styles. With a masterful hand, he weaves this echo of tradition into the avant-garde soundscape of his score. Equally, Zandonai succeeds in finding his own tone for D’Annunzio’s torture scene, with its obvious reminiscence of Victorien Sardou’s and Puccini’s TOSCA, and for the brief final scene, whose dramaturgy recalls the blood-thirsty finale of Verdi’s OTELLO.


Hitting the Nerve of the Era

Questions remain about Zandonai as a person, as he is still almost unknown even in Italy: how is it possible that this composer managed to produce a great international success in FRANCESCA DA RIMINI, but that after 1913 not a single further opera from his pen enjoyed any recognition – neither GIULIETTA E ROMEO (Rome, 1922) nor I CAVALIERI DI EKEBÙ based on Selma Lagerlöf (Milan, 1925) nor four other works? The question is difficult to answer, but an attempt shall be made. None of the libretti for these operas offered dramatic friction comparable to D’Annunzio’s idiosyncratic tragedy. Presumably Zandonai had a hard time finding outstanding texts, for he lived a recluse’s life in the small town of Pesaro, only infrequently visiting the metropolis of Milan where most of the music business was conducted. He was also a reticent personality who did not enjoy the limelight. A passionate hiker, his character was shaped by his Alpine homeland – born as an Austrian citizen in 1883 in the southernmost, Italian-speaking tip of Tyrol, near the small town of Rovereto. Presumably, however, the aftermath of World War I also played a role. After the collapse of Old Europe, the audience obviously craved less artificial fare, such as Giordano and others supplied. Zandonai’s unique mix of Art Nouveau, avant-garde, decadence and (blood-steeped) modernism had hit the nerve of the era in 1914, but a repetition of this success with another subject after 1918 obviously proved impossible.

Translation: Alexa Nieschlag


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