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Max von SCHILLINGS (1868-1933)
Mona Lisa - opera in two acts (1915)
Ein Fremder/Messer Francesco del Giocondo – Mathieu Ahlersmeyer (baritone)
Eine Frau/Mona Fiordalisa, Gattin des Francesco – Inge Borkh (soprano)
Ein Laienbruder/Messer Giovanni de’ Salviati – Hans Beirer (tenor)
Messer Pietro Tumoni – Wilhelm Lang (bass)
Messer Arrigo Oldofredi – Horst Wilhelm (tenor)
Messer Alessio Beneventi – Erich Zimmermann (tenor)
Messer Sandro da Luzzano – Otto Hüsch (bass)
Messer Masolino Pedruzzi – Hanns Pick (bass)
Mona Ginerva ad Alta Rocca – Maria Reith (mezzo soprano)
Dianora, Francescos Töchterchen aus erster Ehe – Alice Zimmermann (soprano)
Piccarda, Zofe der Mona Fiordalisa – Emmi Hagemann (soprano)
Chor and Orchestra of the State Opera, Berlin/Robert Heger
Recorded 1953

Die Frühglocke
Die Nachzügler
Ein Bildchen
Mittagskönig und Glockenherzog
Peter Anders (tenor)
Staatskapelle Berlin/Robert Heger
Recorded May 1943
PREISER 90573 [66.45 + 75.53]


Mona Lisa was von Schilling’s first operatic success. It had a sustained level of esteem in central Europe after its initial production in Stuttgart in 1915 that saw it taken to Vienna, Berlin and Prague. After the War a production was mounted at the Met in New York (1923 to be precise with a strong cast of Barbara Kemp, Michael Bohnen and Curt Taucher). Since when things have gone quiet. There was a Kemp produced revival in 1939 and immediately after the War came this Berlin production which has fortunately been preserved in first class sound for the period.

The reasons for Mona Lisa’s fall from grace are not that hard to fathom. The plot is a real sixpenny dreadful, even by the standards of then contemporary operatic story lines. Much of the musical value resides in a post-Wagnerian largesse and a series of moments of melodramatic absurdity. Locked cabinets, trysts, diabolical drownings and multiple deaths are the heart of the matter. But despite this there is a real sense of power and of engulfing mania that just about keeps the barque afloat. The musical spine is Wagnerian and Straussian. The Vorspiel is explicitly Wagnerian and a sense of parlando pervades the opening scenes; Mussorgskian bell peals add their own sense of crisis and gloom but in the First Act exchange Arrigo brachte Mona Gina her we hear the sense of lyric plasticity of which von Schillings was so capable an exponent – and, significantly, the more corrosively unsettled orchestral writing behind the lovers. The music is frequently rapturous and there are even Janáček-like chugging rhythms (Zu unsren Perlen endlich! – Disc 1 track 11). The most important influence, apart from Wagner’s, remains that of Strauss; Rosenkavalier seems to haunt Mona Lisa’s scene Er hat Kraft, ja er! though von Schillings had clearly been captivated by verismo, momemts of which certainly seep into the end of the First Act.

The gruesome undercurrent that runs throughout is conveyed in a variety of ways – by orchestral sectional groups, by the bass line, say, in Warum so schreckhaft? where a waltz theme is stalked by malign basses, and also by the use of choral forces which is spare but theatrically convincing. Madness and death are the currency and the means used to convey them are thoroughly effective if garish. The cast proves deeply impressive, in the cold light of day more impressive than perhaps the opera warrants. Mathieu Ahlersmeyer is Francesco del Giocondo and he is at the top of his form; a richly resonant baritone, fully equalized and galvanized theatrically. Inge Borkh is perfect casting for this kind of role – she marries the tenderness with the squally hysteria with fierce abandon. Sometimes she drives the upper part of the voice very hard but there’s surely licence for this. Hans Beirer is almost as fine as these notables and his Giovanni can seldom have been matched for control and evenness of tonal production.

A fine ancillary bonus, in less good wartime sound, is Peter Anders’ singing of the Glockenlieder. He’s at his finest and most effulgent in Mittagskönig und Glockenherzog but he proves more than a match for the pithy Wagnerianisms of Ein Bildchen and the passionate Straussian declamation of Die Frühglocke.

There are some useful notes but no libretto – a long plot summary is provided instead and that will do, given the Poe-like level of hysteria involved. Though it’s now perhaps little more than a curio this is a work that still has the power to resonate in the mind.

Jonathan Woolf

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