Max von Schillings
started out his career as chorus master
at Bayreuth, going on to become Intendant
at Stuttgart and then at the Berlin
State Opera. As a conductor he was responsible
for premieres of operas by Pfitzner,
Schreker, Busoni and Richard Strauss.
Mona Lisa was his fourth opera
and it received a triumphant premiere
at the Stuttgart Hof Oper in 1915.
As a composer von Schillings
was much influenced by Richard Strauss.
though the plot of Mona Lisa, with
its renaissance Florence setting and
love-triangle, involving an older merchant,
his young bride and her lover, is strongly
reminiscent of Zemlinsky’s ‘Florentine
Tragedy’ (premiered in 1917 and based
on an Oscar Wilde story).
Von Schillings’ opera
is rather less concise than Zemlinsky’s;
he frames the action with a prelude
and postlude set in the present day
with tourists being shown Mona Lisa’s
mansion and being told her story. The
action then moves to the carnival celebrations
in 1492. Mona Lisa (Inge Borkh) is married
to Francesco del Giocondo (Mathieu Ahlersmeyer).
He is older than her and she does not
love him. He is a collector of pearls
and the young Giovanni de Salviati (Hans
Beirer) comes to acquire a pearl from
Francesco. Giovanni falls in love with
Mona Lisa, Francesco is suspicious.
To avoid Francesco, Giovanni has to
hide in the jewel closet, a hermetically
sealed safe. Suspicious, Francesco locks
the door and confiscates the key. Next
morning Mona Lisa, hearing nothing from
the closet, presumes that Giovanni is
dead. Her maid has found the key where
Francesco threw it into the river. Francesco
appears and when he opens the closet,
Lisa pushes him in and locks the door.
Lisa collapses, crying for mercy.
Von Schillings clothes
this rather novelettish plot with music
in an opulently post-Wagnerian vein.
After the opening carnival scene, there
is a lovely love duet for the two lovers.
This is Beirer’s one opportunity to
shine as once in the closet he never
returns. Act 1 closes with a terrific
scene for the jealous Francesco, this
is powerfully delivered by Ahlersmeyer.
His voice sounds a little frayed at
times, but he is entirely credible and
not a little thrilling. Though she has
plenty to do in Act 1, Borkh’s big moment
comes at the opening of Act 2, when
von Schillings beautifully evokes the
Ash Wednesday dawn, and Mona Lisa as
a big, gloomy solo. Mona Lisa sounds
like a role which requires a decent
amount of stamina; Borkh manages to
provide this along with sounding suitably
youthful, in all she makes a ravishing
heroine. Alice Zimmerman as her maid
Dianora, acquits herself well her lovely
duet with Borkh in Act 2.
Though he was influenced
by Strauss, the opening of the opera
reminded me as much of Korngold But
where Strauss’s influence can be detected
is in the way the composer sets much
of the text in attractive arioso supported
by a highly lyrical and expressive orchestral
accompaniment. This is the weakness
of this recording. It dates from 1953
and is, presumably, from a radio broadcast
(there is no audience noise). Though
the singers are well caught the orchestral
sound is adequate to poor and hardly
does justice to the score.
The singers’ diction
is exemplary, which is a good job as
Walhall provide neither a libretto nor
a plot summary so to follow the action
in detail you have to follow what is
As a bonus, the second
disc also includes three extracts of
von Schillings himself conducting extracts
from the opera in recordings dating
from the 1920s.
There is one final
non-musical point to be made about these
discs. Von Schillings was apparently
an enthusiastic Nazi and in the early
1930s received musical appointments
from them. His death, though, in 1933
robbed him of the ability to either
repent his judgement or to undergo de-Nazification
after the war and goes a long way to
explain why his music has lain in limbo.
But this is a powerful score and deserves
the occasional hearing.