Tragic opera in four acts by Riccardo Zandonai to a libretto by Tito Ricordi the younger from the play by Gabriele D'Annunzio, after Dante Alighieri's Inferno, v:97–142; Turin, Teatro Regio, 19 February 1914.
The cast at the première included Linda Cannetti (Francesca), Giulio Crimi (Paolo) and Francesco Cigada (Gianciotto).
D'Annunzio's tragedy, written in 1901 for Eleonora Duse and defined by the poet as ‘an epic of blood and lust’, needed few basic changes to become a libretto, and to some extent he himself assisted with the adaptation. Sections that, although justifiable in the decadent atmosphere of the play, were not essential to the action and would have presented serious musical difficulties were eliminated. What remains is the essence of the story of Francesca, basically as outlined by Dante but with increased sensuality and darker, more amoral overtones.
Act 1 is set in the house of Francesca's family, the Polentani, in Ravenna. Ostasio arranges a political marriage for his sister Francesca with Giovanni Malatesta, ‘lo Sciancato’ (the Cripple), known as Gianciotto. Surrounded by her maids, Francesca is comforted by her sister Samaritana, and believes her intended husband to be Paolo il Bello, whom she sees passing and to whom she offers a rose; she falls in love with him, though they exchange not a word, but Paolo is only representing his ungainly and cruel brother in a proxy marriage. Their wordless ‘love duet’ (with offstage voices) concludes Act 1. In Act 2 Francesca, now Gianciotto's wife, is living in the Malatesta house at Rimini; wounded during a battle, Paolo reveals his love to Francesca, to her distress. Act 3 takes place in Francesca's apartments, where her ladies are singing a spring song when the slave Smaragdi announces Paolo's arrival; the two are left alone and fall passionately in love, with the encouragement of the love story of Lancelot and Guinevere which they read together (as narrated in Canto v of Dante's Inferno). Act 4 is in two parts, the first containing the most dramatic moments of the opera: Francesca is spied on by Malatestino, Paolo and Gianciotto's degenerate brother, who has also fallen under her spell; he discovers her adulterous liaison with Paolo and crudely attempts to blackmail her, and when she rejects him he denounces the lovers to Gianciotto. In the second part the lovers are together, confident that Gianciotto has departed; but he has in fact set a trap for them, and discovers and kills them.
Francesca da Rimini, considered Zandonai's masterpiece, and certainly his most popular work in Italy, is not only the most successful of the operas based on the plays of D'Annunzio (others are by Alberto Franchetti, Ildebrando Pizzetti, Gian Francesco Malipiero, Pietro Mascagni, Italo Montemezzi): it is also one of the most original and polished Italian melodramas of the 20th century. Zandonai combines a powerful gift for Italian melody, more nervous and fragmentary than Puccini's, with an exceptional command of orchestration, to some extent influenced by Strauss. Verismo‐style vocal writing, in the tradition of Mascagni, is on the whole confined to the male voices, especially in Act 2 and the first part of Act 4, the most dramatic points of the opera, which have a degree of rhetorical inflation. The most inspired music, often with a magical effect not to be found in other contemporary composers, is in the evocation of atmosphere (with some careful use of ancient instruments), in the delicate treatment of the female choruses and, in general, in the close fidelity to the natural rise and fall of the words themselves. Particularly effective are the Act 1 finale, where the Paolo theme is developed in a context of great sweetness, and especially Act 3, the finest in the opera, which includes the charming spring song and the ardent love duet between Paolo and Francesca. There are other strongly expressive sections in the music for Francesca and Samaritana in the first and fourth acts. The dominant feeling conveyed by the score, whose harmonic world has some Debussian colouring, is melancholy and oppressed, somewhat distant from the heavy and erotic atmosphere of D'Annunzio's tragedy. Among the most impressive arias are those of Francesca (‘Chi ho veduto?’ and ‘Paolo, datemi pace!’) and of Paolo (‘Inghirlandata di violette’). But some of the most striking music comes in numbers of a less traditional kind, such as the duets between Francesca and Samaritana and between Paolo and Francesca, and the whole of the first part of Act 4 with Francesca, Gianciotto and Malatestino.