The Metropolitan Opera Guild

Riccardo Zandonai (1883-1944)

In the wake of the veristic movement around 1900, Italian composers turned to poetic drama and the classical or romantic past. Of the generation that followed Puccini and Mascagni, those who particularly reflected this trend were Italo Montemezzi, Ottorino Respighi, Ildebrando Pizzetti, and Riccardo Zandonai. All enjoyed their share of success, but because their music was "modern" and their choice of subjects literary, their works held less immediate appeal for a general audience and have been revived only sporadically.

Zandonai was the publisher Tito Ricordi's choice as most likely to succeed after Puccini. Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini, based on Canto V of the "Inferno" section of Dante's Divine Comedy-which in turn loosely used actual characters and events of Dante's Florence-embodies the characteristics of the postveristic school. Opulently orchestrated in the manner of Richard Strauss, without Italianate emphasis on purely melodic vocal line, this was considered a progressive work by opera audiences in its day. The language of Gabriele D'Annunzio's libretto is high-flown and poetic, showered with archaic vocabulary, but the plot line is old-fashioned violent melodrama. A salient feature of the score is its genre painting of a historic period, influenced by Wagner's in Die Meistersinger. By stressing the Gothic underpinnings of verismo, Zandonai tapped a coloristic vein as rich as the geographical wanderings of Puccini.

Of the various composers who set dramas by D'Annunzio to music, Zandonai came the closest to creating an enduring work. Born at Sacco (Rovereto), the only child of a shoemaker and a tobacco-factory worker, he was befriended by Arrigo Boito, who introduced him to Giulio Ricordi, Tito's father, in 1907. For the house of Ricordi the young man wrote Il Grillo del Focoloare (1908), after Dicken's A Cricket on the Hearth, but it was Conchita (1911) that achieved performances abroad and made his name known. Based on a Pierre Louÿs story that Puccini had turned down, Conchita proved a vehicle for Zandonai's soprano wife, Tarquinia Tarquini. Vocal problems, however, prevented her from "creating" the role of Francesca da Rimini in his most famous work. Of the dozen operas he wrote over a quarter-century, Giulietta e Romeo (1922) and I Cavalieri Di Ekebù (1925, after Selma Lagerlöf's Gösta Berlings Saga) are still occasionally staged.

A modest, serious man, quite opposite in character to the flamboyant D'Annunzio, Zandonai was known for his independence. Symphonic and instrumental music interested him as much as the theater. His last opera staged during his lifetime was La Farsa Amorosa (1933), based on the same Alarcón story as Falla's ballet El Sombrero de Tres Picos (The Three-Cornered Hat). A posthumous premiere of the incomplete Il Bacio took place in 1954. During his last four years, Zandonai served as director of the Conservatory of Pesaro, in the town of Rossini's birth. Administrative contretemps with the Fascist bureaucracy apparently strained his health, and he died in 1944, before the end of the Second World War.

Freeman, John W. The Metropolitan Opera: Stories of the Great Operas. New York: The Metropolitan Opera Guild, W.W. Norton & Company, 1984.