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Alexander von ZEMLINSKY (1871–1942)
Eine Florentinische Tragödie, Op.16 (1916)
Libretto by the composer, after Max Meyerfeld’s translation of the play by Oscar Wilde
Iris Vermillion (mezzo-soprano) — Bianca
Viktor Lutsiak (tenor) — Guido
Albert Dohmen (bass-baritone) — Simone
Élisabeth Balmas (violin solo)
Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France/Armin Jordan
rec. Live in concert, 13 September 2003, Radio France Paris (Salle Olivier Messiaen)
NAÏVE V 4987 [60:23]
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Along with the Lyric Symphony, Eine Florentinische Tragödie kept Zemlinsky’s name alive in the decades after his death. The appearance of this third CD recording since Gerd Albrecht’s pioneering 1983 Schwann LP is an acknowledgement of its rise through the repertory ranks. The setting is renaissance Florence. Following a sensually tempestuous Prelude, wealthy merchant Simone returns home to find wife Bianca in post-coital relaxation with Prince Guido Bardi, son of the city’s ruling Duke. At first he feigns indifference, obsequiously presenting him with his costliest goods, an attitude which Bianca finds contemptible. When finally he provokes Guido to a fight and strangles him on the floor, her feeling shifts: "Why did you not tell me you were so strong?" "Why did you not tell me you were so beautiful?" Simone responds, and as the curtain falls husband and wife come together in a passionate embrace over the corpse.

The ending has been called lurid and implausible, so not the least pleasure of this issue is François-Gildas Tual’s specially-written essay Turmoil and Mystery, which aligns Zemlinsky’s opera with Wedekind’s (and Berg’s) Lulu, Weininger’s infamous Sex and Character and other radical expressions of the Viennese zeitgeist in which woman is depicted not as man’s redeemer, but as the alien creature who unwittingly drags him down into the depths of depravity. Shocking it may be, but Bianca’s volte face is no more sensational kitsch than Klimt’s Der Küss. As in the tone-poem Die Seejungfrau Zemlinsky uses musical expression to salve the scars of his relationship with Alma Schindler/Mahler, but Eine Florentinische Tragödie transcends autobiography just as surely as the orchestral work. His two operas on Wilde texts probe this twin mystery at the heart of fin-de-siècle Vienna’s artistic life — woman and sexuality. Der Zwerg is a subtle work which clothes the debate in the complexities of fairy-tale, but this earlier one-acter presents the obsession in the raw, recalling the method if not the manner of that most infamous of Wildean operas, Salome. Zemlinsky’s essay in superheated emotion equals Strauss’s in opulence as surely as it surpasses it in purely musical interest.

I’m afraid we’re still waiting for a completely satisfactory recording. The rock on which the three previous contenders foundered was undercasting in the central role. The opera is virtually a monologue for Simone, requiring the subtlety of a Fischer-Dieskau, the range of a Terfel and the stamina of a Red Rum. Albert Dohmen, who’s already recorded it under Riccardo Chailly (Decca, 1997) is certainly least stolid of the bunch; but eight years on his saturnine tone has hardened, and his power above the stave has diminished without any compensatory gain in subtlety. His Bianca is once again the faultless Iris Vermillion, more matronly than before but no less sensual in this enigmatic role. Viktor Lutsiuk’s Guido is disappointing. His bleached Slavonic timbre fails to convey lyric ardour, and his observance of pitch and dynamics is not as secure as Heinz Kruse’s in the earlier recording, let alone the superior David Kuebler in James Conlon’s lucid but theatrically undercooked reading.

EMI captured that 1997 version "live" in Cologne, but over three rehearsal days — which might explain its sonic superiority. If Simone is one of Zemlinsky’s protagonists, his orchestra is the other. Armin Jordan here keeps a firm hand on the tiller, but although he whips up plenty of excitement and adrenaline runs high, the orchestral balance isn’t ideal with the strings too often subjugated by the lusty but coarse Paris brass. Nor can Naïve’s comparatively dry recording match the dynamic splendour of its Decca or EMI rivals. No doubt in the concert hall the performance fully deserved its ovation, but in the cold light of day its virtues only duplicate Decca’s at a lower level. Conlon makes the piece sound less like Strauss and more like Zemlinsky, so choice rests between his orchestral clarity on EMI and Chailly’s stronger sense of drama. Realistically, two performances of Eine Florentinische Tragödie are going to be enough for most collectors, and — introductory essay apart — the new Naïve simply isn’t compelling enough to oust those 1997 versions from the shelf. Now if Bryn Terfel were to have a shot at it ….

Christopher Webber

DISCOGRAPHY (Complete CD versions)

  • Doris Soffel, Kenneth Riegel, Guillermo Sarabia; RSO Berlin, c. Gerd Albrecht (Schwann CD 11625, 1983)
  • Iris Vermillion, Heinz Kruse, Albert Dohmen; Concertgebouw Orchestra, c. Riccardo Chailly (Decca Double 4737342, 1997) AmazonUK
  • Deborah Voigt, David Kuebler, Donnie Ray Albert, Gürzenich-Orchester Kölner Philharmoniker, c. James Conlon (EMI Classics 7243 5 56472 2, 1997)

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