The Metropolitan Opera's new production of Riccardo Zandonai's ''Francesca da Rimini'' may be one of the most beautiful in the company's recent history. It is not just that Ezio Frigerio's sets and Franca Squarciapino's costumes are so stunning, but that Piero Faggioni's staging is so perfect in every detail. One senses from first curtain to last that the opera Zandonai wrote was actually being seen, entrance for entrance, crossover for crossover, encounter for encounter, with nary a trace of the director's idiosyncracies intruding on the drama.
Zandonai's opera is based on the story Dante tells in the ''Inferno'' about the 13th-century Lady Francesca and her adulterous affair with Paolo Malatesta, her husband's brother. The opera's libretto is, in fact, a play by Gabriele d'Annunzio written for the illustrious actress Eleanora Duse. In this telling, Francesca da Polenta is tricked into believing that Paolo is to be her husband, whereas the lame, hunchback Gianciotto is really her intended. The music publisher Tito Ricordi pared the play down to opera-libretto dimensions.
The opera was first seen in 1914, was given its Met premiere in 1916, and has retained a certain cult following throughout the years, mostly in Italy. An old Cetra recording of it, made in 1952, has kept the opera alive in legitimate circles; pirate collectors all know the classic 1959 La Scala revival with Magda Olivero, Mario del Monaco, and Gianandrea Gavazzeni conducting. In fact, that pirate is a dimly recorded souvenir of what all who saw it declared was as close to the definitive performance of this work as it may ever get.
Zandonai creates and sustains a series of moods that frame the various encounters between principals. The entire score works toward the love scene of the third act - where, while reading to each other the story of Lancelot and Guinevere, Francesca and Paolo kiss for the first time. It is the crowning achievement of the opera - masterful in the creation and sustaining of a mood of unease, and of the tension of the denouement that suffuses the whole first three acts.
Zandonai was heavily influenced by Strauss and Wagner, and one can almost keep a log of the moments in ''Francesca'' that were either inspired by or even filched from an opera of the masters. Yet he keeps a distinct voice throughout, and his orchestration is genuinely interesting.
The music is clearly of its time - circa 1914 - as it tells a medieval tale. And the production superbly captures that duality. Frigerio's sets offer a haunting visual embodiment of the musical colors. The costumes are at once indicative of an earlier period with a certain draping quality so beloved of that early-20th-century feeling. Faggioni's direction on these sets is a marvel of restraint: of fluid motion, of fleeting gestures fraught with meaning, of a touch here, a look there, to project with increasing power the growing tensions of the romantic drama. And yet the battles in the second act are thrillingly presented.
Galvanizing the musical side of the evening was James Levine, who proved just what loving a score since age 16 really means. A pliancy, an attention to nuance , to shading, to color, to the hushed nervous undercurrent of portent that suffuses the score, were all melded into a performance of uncommon distinction even by some of Levine's previously exalted standards. In truth, this is the most committed, most dramatic, most singular performance I have heard him give of an opera in several seasons.
The leads were taken by Renata Scotto and Placido Domingo. Miss Scotto is functioning on the remnants of a once noble lyric soprano; she was also singing in a style of opera that has always suited her superbly. The histrionic performance was so remarkable, that one overlooked the vocal flaws which were fewer than expected (a persistent lack of color and tonal quality in the voice notwithstanding). Mr. Domingo was not in ideal voice either, but it was a role that suited his dramatic gifts marvelously, and he made the most of the acting side of it. He and Miss Scotto worked particularly well together, creating a magic rare to the Met stage these days.
Cornell MacNeil was the vivid Gianciotto. The quartet of maids who serve Francesca were an unfelicitous assemblage of ill-matched voices heard at too great a length. Most of the secondary casting was not of a Met standard, but the strengths of the evening outweighed its flaws.
''Francesca'' is not an opera to all tastes, but to know it is to be obsessed with it. The Met served it up in the grandest, most faithful possible style - reminding anew of what the house is really capable of doing when the right choices are made top to bottom.