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Alexander von ZEMLINSKY (1872-1942)
Eine florentinische Tragödie (1916) [52:18]
Heidi Brunner (soprano): Bianca
Wolfgang Koch (baritone): Simone
Charles Reid (tenor): Guido
ORF Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra/Bertrand de Billy
rec. live, Konzerthaus Wien, 20 May 2010
CAPRICCIO C5325 [52.18]

When the music of Zemlinsky began to draw the attention of the wider world during the 1970s and 1980s, A Florentine Tragedy (initially revived in Hamburg as part of an Oscar Wilde double bill, coupled with an adapted version of Zemlinsky’s own The Dwarf) drew comparisons from many critics with Strauss’s Salome. The reasons for such parallels were not hard to seek: both operas were in one act, and both drew on Wilde texts which were classified among that author’s ‘exotic’ or ‘decadent’ works. But in point of fact those parallels may have been misleading in several respects.

Among Wilde’s mature plays, Salome is very much the exception to the spate of wit and dialogue which constitutes his other four major pieces for the stage. The Germans, who enthusiastically took up the author after his death, seem to have been less enthralled by Wilde’s verbal fireworks; Strauss suppressed the occasional patches of black humour in Salome, and translators fought shy of the obvious pun – which would have worked quite well in German – by rendering the title of The importance of being Earnest as Bunbury. It is not simply that Salome was originally written in French and rendered into English by Lord Alfred Douglas; the latter’s ‘purple prose’ matches closely that of Wilde’s earlier poems such as The Sphinx and it is clear that the author took a close personal hand in the matter of the translation itself, in turn influencing the development of Douglas’s own later poetic style. Indeed Wilde clearly intended to make use of this highly artificial idiom in later plays: the fragmentary La sainte courtesaine, despite its French title, was written in English which closely mirrored Salome. The fragments, which suggest a reflection in turn of Anatole France’s Thaďs, are too disparate to give much of an impression of what was intended to be the whole; but A Florentine Tragedy, a play in blank verse which harks back to Wilde’s rambling The Duchess of Padua, came much closer to completion with only the opening scene missing. Wilde in De profundis refers to the three plays, two unfinished, as “beautiful coloured, musical things” and it is clear that he would certainly have welcomed operatic settings of them.

What A Florentine Tragedy does share with Salome is its sense of wilful amorality. The merchant, discovering his wife along with the prince whom he believes to be her lover, deliberately engineers a duel in which the young man is killed; and the wife, although it is suggested that she knows the dead man to be innocent and has indeed herself incited him to kill her husband, nevertheless falls into the arms of the latter simply because she is enamoured of his physical strength. One suspects that Wilde, if he had ever returned to the play after his release from imprisonment, might have pursued the inexorable course of jealousy to include the murder of the wife; but the final curtain brings a sense of overwhelming power as it stands, and Zemlinsky backs it up with a chordal theme which has an inevitable impact. The problem, both with the play and the opera, lies in what precedes this dénouement, a long and protracted verbal fencing match between the three principals in which the husband tries to establish his wife’s infidelity while at the same time steering clear of any direct approach to the subject. Their polite circumnavigation of the matter did not, it seems, totally inspire Wilde – the words “my Lord” recur time and time again in an attempt to keep the blank verse rhythms going – and they don’t seem to bring out the best in Zemlinsky either. Perhaps he lacked the personal sense of aggrievement which he conjured up so successfully in Der Zwerg. What we do have instead is a turbulent prelude which sidesteps the possibility of the wife’s innocence with a graphic description of what happens before the husband arrives, which is where Wilde’s fragment begins, leaving no doubt of the carnal nature of the relationship between the wife and the prince and effectively abnegating the element of ambiguity to be found in the original text. The brief duet between the two towards the end, while the husband has left the stage, is heated up by Zemlinsky in a manner which leaves any possibility of innocence to the birds.

Since there are only three characters in what is after all a fairly lengthy one-act opera, much relies on the singers who actually assume these roles. The first recording, conducted by Gerd Albrecht and made shortly after the stage presentations in Hamburg, featured singers who had taken part in them – Kenneth Riegel, Doris Soffel and Guillermo Sarabia, all good solid performers but none of them possessed of the sense of glamour that might be regarded as the ideal. This is particularly true of the tenor who takes on the role of the prince; he should have a lyric sense of beauty to his voice that can form a contrast to the more down-to-earth virtues of the husband, and which would explain his attraction to the would-be errant wife. Indeed, like Paul in Korngold’s Die tote Stadt, the part needs to be sung by a sort of Tristan with a sweet centre and clean high notes, the sort of voice that is almost impossible to discover—perhaps Plácido Domingo might have obliged in his Wagnerian days. Riegel, an intelligent and committed singer, is simply too strenuous as he struggles with Zemlinsky’s heavy orchestration. This Wergo pioneering recording is no longer listed as available on Archiv, although two other alternatives are shown: a 1996 studio reading conducted by Riccardo Chailly, and a live 2014 relay under Vladimir Jurowski. (A 1998 studio alternative under James Conlon appears to have fallen under the deletions axe.) It is important to note that, although this new issue derives from a live concert, it yields nothing to the studio recordings in accuracy of performance; the very slight imprecisions and imperfections of tuning in the difficult vocal parts would indeed have been undetectable without having the score before me.

Comparisons of this new version with the premičre recording under Albrecht are complicated by the fact that the old Wergo disc is reprehensibly totally devoid of any individual tracking; but in general Wergo’s recorded sound is, if anything, slightly clearer than on the new Capriccio live performance, with the orchestra more cleanly balanced even when it is set slightly further back against the voices. But on this new disc Charles Reid is a palpable improvement on Riegel’s wiry-toned prince, and Wolfgang Koch shows greater dramatic involvement than Sarabia as the husband. Where the old set does score is in Soffel’s portrayal of the errant wife; she has the ability to float her sometimes cruelly high-lying lines in a manner that totally defeats Heidi Brunner, whose delivery at the end of her duet with Reid veers on the positively ugly. Mind you, Iris Vermillion for Chailly is pretty good here as well. I found the recorded balance on Jurowski’s LSO performance somewhat less satisfactory; this might well be the result of microphone placing in the hall during the live performance, but the general sound seems to lack warmth. Bertrand de Billy and his orchestra here are fully in command of Zemlinsky’s richly integrated textures.

If you can tolerate Reid’s failings—and they constitute only a small part of the whole on offer here—you may well find that this new Capriccio release, an addition to their substantial catalogue of rare Zemlinsky operas, is a more than satisfactory substitute for the old deleted Wergo recording and a worthy rival candidate for that conducted by Chailly for Decca. It is well served by a booklet which contains parallel texts in German and English. The old Wergo most oddly jettisoned the sung German in favour of English and French translations only. The latter version here is credited to Edward Downes; but at best he can only have been responsible for the translation of the extended stage directions since otherwise we are given Wilde’s original, unamended although plagued by a multitude of printing errors. I am extremely pleased that the company is now once again printing texts in its booklets for rare operas; too many of its recent reissues have unceremoniously omitted these in works where they are really needed. All they now need is a proof-reader.

The late lamented Penguin Guide was decidedly rude about the subject matter of Zemlinsky’s Eine florentinische Tragödie: “the musical syrup which flows over all the characters makes them repulsive, with motives only dimly defined.” The moralistic tone is misplaced; despite the defects of the original fragmentary play, it attracted the interest of composers as widely differentiated as Puccini and Busoni, although both decided for various reasons not to proceed with their own operatic treatments of the text. It seems to have suited Zemlinsky like a glove; and Berg too seems to have gleaned some hints for his own even more expressionist Wozzeck, with its various equally repellent characters. Zemlinsky’s opera indeed deserves its recent revival and occasional outings on stage, and this new recording is as good as any even if some rivals offer additional material on the disc.

Paul Corfield Godfrey



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