Monday night, March 4, 2013, Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek and Sicilian tenor Marcello Giordani (Paolo Malatesta) headlined as the ill-fated lovers of Riccardo Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini, in the revival of the Metropolitan Opera’s opulent production from the 1983-84 centennial season. Italian conductor Marco Armiliato obviously enjoyed the rapturous curtain calls he and the cast of principals deservedly received. Those other principals included American baritone Mark Delavan as the deceptive and deceived Giovanni Malatesta and the evening’s biggest surprise, American tenor Robert Brubaker as the creepy Malatestino, the youngest of the Malatesta brothers.
To appreciate why Robert Brubaker shone in a supporting role, albeit an important one, a little of the story will help, the moral of which is: Never date your older brother’s girlfriend—no matter how ugly he is or how handsome you are—especially once she’s married to him. It can never lead to anything good in a castle (or any other dwelling, for that matter) full of sharp pointy implements.
You’ll also need to know the nicknames of the three Malatesta brothers: the eldest, Gianciotto lo Sciancato (Chubby John the Crippled), the middle child, Paolo il Bello (roughly, Paul the Hunk), and the youngest, Malatestino dall’Occhio (Little Malatesta the One-Eyed). Okay, maybe you don’t need to know the nicknames, but it’s sure fun writing them. (See “Zandonai and infernal denizens” in the article “When infidelity rocks a relationship.”) The names, however, offer insights into the dynamics of this highly dysfunctional medieval family.
The works starts brightly and hopefully enough at the Polentani castle in Ravenna. Francesca awaits the arrival of Giovanni Malatesta, from Rimini, whom she’s never seen and who will be her husband. Her brother Ostasio believes it prudent to trick her into believing Giovanni’s messenger, Paolo Malatesta, to be her betrothed, since she surely would never consent to marry an ugly deformed cripple. And so Paolo arrives to retrieve his brother’s bride but is instantly smitten with Francesca, who likewise falls for him without so much as exchanging a word.
After Giovanni and Francesca’s marriage, she becomes the center of attention of all three Malatesta brothers. Her husband is affectionate enough with her, but she is distant. Paolo seethes with guilt for coveting his brother’s bride, wishing he could die in battle, and Malatestino shamelessly lusts after her. Paolo almost gets his death wish, but Malatestino is the more severely injured, and Francesca tends his wounds.
In Act III, Paolo visits Francesca’s chambers where they read of Sir Lancelot's guilty love for King Arthur’s bride, Guinevere. They kiss. They swoon with guilt-stricken passion. In the final act, Francesca rebuffs Malatestino’s immoral advances, and he high-tails it when Giovanni arrives. Francesca rats on Malatestino, who in turn tattles on Francesca and Paolo. In an intense emotionally charged duet, the oldest and youngest brother at first fight, then unite to catch the guilty couple in sin. In the final scene, Gianciotto lunges at Paolo to stab him, but he has poor aim and carelessly stabs Francesca instead. The betrayed husband is more successful with a second attempt, and Paolo and Francesca die quickly as the final curtain falls.
Eva-Maria Westbroek and Marcello Giordani turned in committed, vocally secure performances, reminiscent of the glory days of verismo. Mark Delavan thundered and was truly frightening in his most heated passages. But Robert Brubaker sang them off the stage. He made it difficult to hate his repulsive character with all the gleaming vocal radiance he launched into the cosmos.
It would be a mistake not to give due credit to the massive Piero Faggioni production, with colossal sets by Ezio Frigerio, sumptuous costumes by Franca Squarciapino, properly gloomy lighting by Gil Wechsler, and choreography by Donald Mahler. The central set piece in all five scenes was a large square plinth with four steps leading up to it from front and both sides, which kept the intimate dramatic framing well toward center stage. Around it, Ezio Frigerio constructed the splendid Polentani foyer with its balustrade crossing above three double glass doors. He scantily furnished the plinth for Francesca’s luxurious chambers with a tiny bed, two-sided folding screen, and a small round table displaying an open book of Arthurian legends. Visually, the work was worth the ticket price.
Of course, there's the minor detail of Riccardo Zandonai’s exotic score for an immense orchestra. Deborah Hoffman, the exquisite harpist, hardly had a moment's rest, and the orchestral scoring allowed her instrument to sound delicately yet distinctly in even the loudest passages. Quite a contrast to the three harps deployed in Richard Wagner’s Parsifal, which failed to make the same sonic impression in the Monday, Feb. 18, performance. The syncopated pulsating orchestra in Act III steadily maintained tension while creating suspense, subtle clues that despite how glorious the bloom of love, something terrible could happen any minute.
Bel Canto Global Arts Manager Brian Jauhiainen, in a brief telephone interview Tuesday, March 5, likened his client Robert Brubaker to fine wine, which improves with age. He has sung 58 performances at the Met since debuting in 1993 as Zorn in Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. He has portrayed many characters in the U.S. and Europe that might be described as sinister (Mephistopheles in Ferruccio Busoni’s Doktor Faust, the Witch in Englebert Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel, Chairman Mao in John Adams’ Nixon in China, Mime in Wagner’s Das Rheingold and Siegfried, and Loge in Das Rheingold) or just plain creepy (Herodes in Richard Strauss' Salome).
Robert Brubaker himself took time to speak with Examiner.com about his success Monday night, about typecasting, and his lengthy career. Read his interview in Wednesday’s column.