At under an hour this opera, A Florentine Tragedy, is a short evening out, but it is more than worthwhile for the rarity of the fare and the commitment to and engagement with the material by all concerned. Director Pamela Schermann deserves credit for reviving it and with an appropriately decadent sense of style.
This rarely-heard opera receives a welcome outing as part of a ‘fin de siècle’ season which seeks to revive rarely heard works from around 1900 in fresh settings. It is an exotic bird in every sense. Based on an unfinished play by Oscar Wilde it was composed by Alexander Zemlinsky in 1917. The text, delivered here in English translation, is written in Wilde’s Salome manner, full of deliberately over-ripe and overwrought diction that seeks self-consciously to embody excess. It receives a parallel full-on expressionist setting that evokes the extremes of contemporary works such as Strauss’ setting of Wilde’s Salome, the same composer’s Elektra, and Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder. The musical language is both lush and anguished, pushing chromaticism to its limits and enabling the orchestra (here as a reduced piano score) as both commentator and participant in the melodramatic action.
The subject was also quite close to the autobiographical bone for the composer, whose sister, married to Schoenberg, had recently conducted a torrid affair with another artist, Gerstl, who then killed himself when she returned to her husband. This was while all parties, including Zemlinsky, lived in the same building!
Wilde’s original is a three-hander, with a story taken from Renaissance Florence, in which the abusive marriage of Bianca and Simone is broken up by her lover, Guido, leading to a duel between the two men, with the victor claiming Bianca as his. Very little happens except in the exploration of many layers and textures of sensuality as over-heated tensions build towards the final show-down. It is hardly a pretty or moral tale, but fairly typical of the contemporary Viennese artistic and psychiatric interest in abusive relationships and extreme states of mind.
These points are mirrored in the set where a bed overlain with sumptuous linens and throws foregrounds a series of hangings all in bright shades of red, orange and cerise in which characters lurk or from which they emerge often slitting the fabrics dramatically along the way. Material and sensual indulgence is very much part of the action, not least because Simone is a merchant seeking to sell elaborate wares to the princely visitor and for whom everything, and everyone has their price. Two-tone costumes, with waistcoats and corsets that invite unlacing, help to make these points visually.
As the cuckolded husband, baritone Nick Dwyer is quite excellent, projecting his unappealing character forcefully with swagger and outrage. As we saw last week in Mozart & Salieri he is also a fine stage actor and though naturally far more glamorous than the role suggests he dug deep in projecting his love-hate relationship with his wife. Lawrence Thackeray also does a sterling job as the haughty prince Guido, with some very tricky tenor pathways to negotiate, as well as quite a bit of strenuous lovemaking and wardrobe shedding along the way.
Becca Marriott is well suited to the role of frustrated, but defiant Bianca, who stands up to her aggressive husband and wallows extravagantly in the passionate sections with her lover, where nothing is left implicit in either staging or music (this is one of those cases where excess is more than justified). She is alluring, sulky, petulant and contemptuous in turn, and so we are well prepared for her switch of allegiances towards the end.
It is not really a criticism of Andrew Charity’s pianism to say that in this piece you really do miss the power and perfume of a full orchestra. You miss the seething, writhing lines of instrumental commentary, which often contain the key melodic material as well. A piano reduction inevitably sounds congested and clangourous, failing to capture the lyricism and virtuosity of the writing. But all credit to him for finding his way through the thicket of notes.
At under an hour this opera is a short evening out, but it is more than worthwhile for the rarity of the fare and the commitment to and engagement with the material by all concerned. Director Pamela Schermann deserves credit for reviving it and with an appropriately decadent sense of style.