In the fifth canto of the Inferno, Dante and his guide, the poet Virgil, enter the second circle of hell, where they meet Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, condemned for adultery. In life Francesca had pledged eternal love to Paolo, though betrothed to his older brother, the knight Lanciotto Malatesta (some accounts call him Gianciotto). When Lanciotto left to fight in the Crusades, Paolo and Francesca–comparing themselves to another illicit couple, Lancelot and Guinevere–consummated their relationship; upon his return, Lanciotto discovered the lovers and stabbed them both to death. Composers of the Romantic period, interested as they were in expressing the agony and ecstasy of love through music, were drawn to this centuries-old tale. Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff each adapted the story for a substantial work–and those pieces, both titled Francesca da Rimini, constitute this Saturday’s Chicago Symphony Orchestra program. The Tchaikovsky, a swooningly evocative fantasia completed in 1877, has been a concert favorite from the start; Rachmaninoff’s brief two-scene opera (with a libretto by Tchaikovsky’s brother, Modest) hasn’t had the same success, especially in the West. Though it was first performed in 1906, this concert staging is its Chicago premiere. (The neglect of this opera says more about Rachmaninoff’s limited reputation, based mostly on his piano concertos, than it does about the piece’s merit.) The opera is bracketed by a prologue and epilogue, each dark and atmospheric, that take Dante into and out of the second circle; the two acts are richly melodic and clearly indebted to the Russian art-song tradition, and the whole piece is unmistakably Wagnerian in its harmonies and use of leitmotivs. The character dynamics are compelling as well: Rachmaninoff grants Francesca a dignified grace and melancholy, and crafts a tense declaration of passion between the two lovers. The music’s blend of heat and restraint–extreme passions juxtaposed with minute nuances of feeling–should put conductor Christoph Eschenbach to the test, requiring him to carefully control his flamboyant tendencies. The cast includes soprano Marina Mescheriakova (Francesca), tenor Vinson Cole (Paolo), and bass Sergei Leiferkus (Lanciotto). The stage director is Michael Halberstam, and the CSO will be joined by the Milwaukee Symphony Chorus. Saturday, August 10, 8 PM, Pavilion, Ravinia Festival, Green Bay and Lake Cook Rds., Highland Park; 847-266-5100.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Christian Steiner.