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Alexander von ZEMLINSKY (1872-1942)
Eine florentinische Tragödie (A Florentine Tragedy) (1914-16) [52.18]
Heidi Brunner (soprano) – Bianca
Wolfgang Koch (baritone) – Simone
Charles Reid (tenor) – Guido
ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien/Bertrand de Billy
rec. live, 20 May 2010, Wiener Konzerthaus, Austria
CAPRICCIO C5325 [52.18]

In recent decades Zemlinsky’s music has been undergoing a general reassessment. Previously the Vienna born composer was known more as both mentor and later brother-in-law of Schoenberg than for the merit of his own works. For some time, the Capriccio label has been championing Zemlinsky’s music and has produced some splendid recordings. Of particular merit is the label’s 2006 release of the Lyrische Symphonie played by Orchestre National de Paris under Christoph Eschenbach (review). Now Capriccio with ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien has turned its attention to Zemlinsky’s opera Eine florentinische Tragödie (A Florentine Tragedy).

Commenced in 1895, before his calamitous trial, Oscar Wilde didn’t complete his play A Florentine Tragedy, which he left in a fragmentary form. Set in sixteenth century Florence, Wilde’s play concerns Simone a wealthy cloth merchant who returns to discover his wife Bianca being seduced by Guido the son of a Duke. A fight ensues and Simone strangles his rival to death. The incident revitalises the passion between man and wife who become reconciled.

Zemlinsky wrote Eine florentinische Tragödie in 1914-16, it was his fifth opera, a work probably inspired by Richard Strauss’ success with Salome, another opera based on a Wilde play and of considerable shock value. For his libretto Zemlinsky adapted almost all of Max Meyerfeld’s German translation of Wilde’s play. Cast in a single act, Eine florentinische Tragödie was premičred in 1917 at the Staatsoper Stuttgart under Max von Schillings although evidently Zemlinsky was left relatively unimpressed by the conducting. A few weeks later Zemlinsky later conducted a production of the work himself at the Neues Deutsche Theater, Prague. Owing to its relatively short duration when staged it is often paired with another work, for example in a 2017 Dutch National Opera production of Eine florentinische Tragödie it was paired with Puccini’s contemporaneous single act comic opera Gianni Schicchi.

Here, the three soloists have been extremely well-chosen and provide plenty of emotional thrust when required. Very much at home with German roles, American Charles Reid as Guido has an appealing tone, singing effectively with a yearning quality. Not over-bright, his lyric-tenor projects well demonstrating ample volume. The part of Bianca is convincingly sung by Switzerland born soprano Heidi Brunner displaying pleasing expression. With her dusky tone, weighty and durable rather than fragile it’s no surprise to learn that Brunner’s career started as a mezzo-soprano. Raising the temperature with his outstanding singing is Wolfgang Koch as the merchant Simone. Noted for his Wagnerian roles the Bavarian born dramatic bass-baritone excels, with his assured and steady line with one sensing that he still has much more in hand. With all sections totally committed ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien is in outstanding form and I’m delighted how under Bertrand de Billy it produces considerable colour and generates tension in a performance that bursts with drama, often of a suitably erotic complexion.

Recorded live in concert performance at Konzerthaus Vienna the sound quality is agreeable being clear and well balanced, quite close but never drowning the singers. In the card sleeve a separate booklet contains an essay by Gerhard Persché and I’m delighted to report that Max Meyerfield’s German libretto is contained alongside Edward Downes’ English translation.

Bertrand de Billy directs his vocal and orchestral forces in a dramatic and suitably decadent depiction of Wilde’s passionate Florentine love triangle.

Michael Cookson

Previous review: Paul Corfield Godfrey


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