Francesca da Rimini, Opera Holland Park, London
Prom 26, Royal Albert Hall, London

'Francesca' is dangerously foxy, but catch her if you can

When an opera is rarely staged, you wonder why.

Fashion, economy, or quality control? The story of Francesca da Rimini, a noblewoman tricked into marrying into a powerful Italian family, inspired composers aplenty: Tchaikovsky came up with his symphonic poem, and Rachmaninov an opera, with a libretto by Tchaikovsky's brother, Modeste. Artists, too, notably Ingres, found irresistible the image of two lovers disturbed by a jealous husband. Rodin's The Kiss was originally called Paolo et Francesca. But for a real collector's item go to the back of the composers' A-Z.

Riccardo Zandonai's Francesca, first produced in 1914 and given a rare outing by Opera Holland Park in the same season as Pelléas et Mélisande, is shot through with the colours that Debussy mixed 12 years earlier in his own opera of doomed love and envy. Wagner, Strauss, Janacek ... they are all here, too, swirling around in a rich mix that, but for Phillip Thomas's razor-sharp conducting, would spin out of control. He puts you in mind of a dog-walker, in total command of the great danes and poodles without tripping over the pug.

Francesca (a pained Cheryl Barker) agrees to wed one of the good, bad and ugly Malatesta brothers, believing it's the appealing Paolo who is on offer. In Act Two, cauterised by disappointment, she tends loyally to her deformed husband (a cloudy-voiced Jeffrey Black), until the reappearance of Paolo (Julian Gavin). Temptation, the malice of the third brother, Malatestino, sung with joyous venom by Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts, and the self-professing prophesy of the romance Francesca reads with her gentlewomen, guarantee a tragic ending.

Two clunking walls are heaved and shoved to create new places, but the push-bar-to-exit device in Jamie Varton's design had me baffled: was this anachronism a symbol of Francesca's entrapment, or merely the last door in the shop? Director Martin Lloyd-Evans, had similarly awkward ideas for the chorus, so that visually this production could not keep up with the fleet-of-foot music. And you could drop the head-in-a-bag scene. You usually can. Maybe that is why Francesca da Rimini is rarely staged. It's too foxy: exhilarating, but just a wee bit feral.

No such waywardness at Prom 26 in which the World Orchestra for Peace gave exemplary performances of Mahler's Symphonies Nos 4 and 5, one serene and summery, Camilla Tilling the soprano soloist, the other passionate in its wintery maturity. Even among the pick of the planet's players on stage, drawn from top orchestras and performing free, the Mariinsky's trumpeter Timur Martynov shone with his golden fanfare at the opening of the Fifth. A rapt Valery Gergiev, conducting, sculpted the closing Adagietto like a sacred object of veneration.

'Francesca da Rimini' (0845 230 9769), to 13 Aug; Proms (0845 401 5040) to 11 Sep

Next Week:

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