Zemlinsky’s “Ein florentinische Tragödie”

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ZEMLINSKY: Ein florentinische Tragödie / Heidi Brunner, mezzo (Bianca); Charles Reid, ten (Guido Bardi); Wolfgang Koch, bar (Simone); ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orch.; Bertrand de Billy, cond / Capriccio C5325 (live: Vienna Konzerthaus, May 20, 2010)

This, the last of the Zemlinsky reissues offered this year by Capriccio, is the composer’s one-act opera of 1917, set to a libretto reminiscent of Italian verismo in general and Puccini’s Il Tabarro in particular. Florentine cloth merchant Simone, returning home unexpectedly from an unsuccessful business trip, surprises his wife Bianca with a young man, who introduces himself as Guido Bardi, the son of the Duke of Florence. Simone, seeking revenge on the seducer, initially pretends to be Guido’s servant and offers the prince merchandise and wine. Abruptly, the innocuous chit-chat turns into strife, when Simone challenges the prince to a duel. The merchant knocks Guido’s sword out of his hand, takes away his dagger and strangles him with his bare hands. Bianca, who apparently gets turned on by brutal murderers, admires Simone’s power and strength. He embraces his wife once more. And then they go out for chianti and pizza. The libretto, by Zemlinsky’s friend Max Mayerfield, is based on an unfinished fragment by Oscar Wilde. Interestingly, future stage and film director Max Reinhardt was the producer of the original production.

The overture opens with a bitonal, slashing trumpet fanfare à la Strauss’ Elektra but quickly moves into a rapid theme played by the string section that reminds one of Salome but is wholly original in concept. There is, however, also a lovely Romantic theme in the strings that reminds one that he influenced Korngold (and, with him, background movie music of the 1930s and ‘40s). The opera proper opens with a monologue sung by Simone (Wolfgang Koch), a dark-voiced German baritone but not a deep, heavy one; in fact, his voice strongly reminded me of Heinrich Schlusnus except, perhaps, with a bit more darkness in his timbre. Like Il Tabarro, which for better or worse I consider Puccini’s most dramatic and least kitschy score, there are no arias but rather a lot of sung lines that interact with each other and develop musically. (Another coincidence: Puccini had also been interested in setting this story, but his publisher Ricordi advised him against it, which is when he replaced it with Tabarro.)

Interestingly—perhaps deliberately—we really don’t hear a lot of either Bianca or Guido. Simone dominates the proceedings to the point where his is the voice one hears 90% of the time and thus the voice that sticks in one’s mind. This is fine by me since Koch clearly has the finest and richest voice of the three singers. Charles Reid, who sings Guido, has a fine, light tenor voice of the type you might expect to hear singing Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi or Fenton in Falstaff, while soprano Heidi Brunner, though emoting her little heart out, has an uneven, fluttery voice production that does not welcome prolonged exposure. Much to my surprise, Bertrand de Billy, whose Metropolitan Opera performances always sounded mushy and dragged out with too much rallentando, conducts a strong, concise performance here which adds to the drama.

Apparently, Ein florentinische Tragödie was somewhat well-received at its premiere (except for some caustic words from Alma Mahler, who had seduced Zemlnsky around the same time she was screwing around behind Mahler’s back with other men…she got around) but did not stay in the repertoire. But young Alban Berg admired it so much that, the liner notes tell us, musical parallels can be found in his own Wozzeck of 1925.

One of the thins I really liked about this work is the way Zemlinsky wrote for the tenor’s character. He is presented as neither a passive nor an aggressive character, but rather as one who fully realizes the power of his position yet is trying to work around the temper of a jealous husband. The one dramatic flaw, I think, is how long it takes for Simone to act on his jealous anger. Unlike Michele in Il Tabarro, he doesn’t just suspect infidelity but actually catches his wife in the act. Even Alfio in Cavalleria Rusticana doesn’t actually catch Lola fooling around with Turiddu, he just hears about it second-hand. If this had been handled by Puccini, I think Guido would have been dead halfway through Zemlinsky’s time frame.

All things considered, this is the better of the two complete recordings currently available. The other, on LPO 0078D (a performance recorded four years later, in 2014), has a good dramatic projection of the drama by baritone Albert Dohmen, an even better Guido in tenor Sergei Skorokhodov and slightly steadier singing by mezzo Heike Wessels, with fine conducting by Vladimir Jurowski, but the sound is rather too recessed for the singers to make their proper impact and, when one considers how much Simone dominates this piece, I find Koch’s voice not only more attractive but steadier in emission than Dohmen’s. Thus this is the preferred recording to get, and I strongly recommend that you do so if you appreciate good, modern music drama.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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