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Passion From Hell: Zandonai's 'Francesca da Rimini'

Francesca (Svetla Vassileva) is tricked into marrying an odious older man, but she still harbors feelings for his brother Paulo (Roberto Alagna). (Opéra national de Paris)

A decade or so ago, the British vocal ensemble Mediaeval Baebes made something of a splash by creating contemporary tunes with an ancient appeal, using poetry dating back hundreds of years. While that may be an unusual approach to pop music, classical composers have been doing it for quite some time — and in one song, the Baebes shared some material with Riccardo Zandonai, the composer of this week's opera.

The Baebes number in question is called "The Circle of the Lustful" — which may be the only clue you'll need to identify the source of the song's lyrics, and the opera's story. The Circle of Lust is the second circle of hell as described in Dante Alighieri's Inferno, and the eternal poetic home of a real-life medieval babe.

Francesca da Rimini was a contemporary of Dante in the late 13th century. As legend has it, she was forced into a political marriage with a brutal, much older man, and in the process fell madly in love with her brother-in-law. Eventually, the husband caught the two in the midst of passion and murdered them both. With a story like that one, immortalized by Dante, it's easy to see how Francesca's fate has been evoked by music ranging from Zandonai's opera and a Tchaikovsky tone poem to a 21st-century pop song.

Yet despite its famous story, Zandonai's Francesca da Rimini was sort of a flash in the pan. While the tale has been told in more than a dozen operas, including one by Sergei Rachmaninoff, Zandonai's version is the only one that's heard much today. And though Zandonai himself was once touted as the logical heir to Puccini, he never really lived up to his billing, with the success of Francesca da Rimini leading many to regard him as a one-hit wonder.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents Zandonai's Francesca in a production from the Bastille Opera in Paris, starring soprano Svetla Vassileva as Francesca and tenor Roberto Alagna as her lover Paolo.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive.

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