Tribuna Musical: Operatic triangles in the midst of war

Blog Tribuna Musical | domingo, octubre 24, 2010
Operatic triangles in the midst of war
In what is undoubtedly the best operatic idea of the year, the Colón has combined two one-acters premiered in 1916-7 and written by valuable composers still little-known here. And as they concern hot triangles and are both written in Germany but placed in Italy during the Renaissance, the joint local premieres of Alexander Von Zemlinsky´s "Eine Florentinische Tragödie" ("A Florentine Tragedy") and Erich Wolfgang Korngold´s "Violanta" make eminent sense.

It is worth recalling that the two greatest innovators of the Twentieth Century had by then taken decisive steps: Arnold Schönberg had entered his atonal phase in 1911 and Igor Stravinsky had unchained rhythm in "Le Sacre du Printemps" in 1913. And Richard Strauss had attained the very limits of tonality with his "Elektra" in 1908 before withdrawing to quieter waters with "Der Rosenkavalier" (1910).

It is also worthwhile to realize that World War I was mainly fought in trenches and that, apart from natural economic strictures, life in the cities maintained its cultural ferment. Thus, "Eine Florentinische Tragödie" was premiered at Stuttgart in 1917 and "Violanta" in a double programme with Korngold´s comedy "Der Ring des Polykrates" at Munich in 1916.

In recent years the Colón has finally given its due to these composers. Zemlinsky´s "King Kandaules" was offered in 2005 and Korngold´s "Die Tote Stadt" ("The Dead City") was presented in 1999. Zemlinsky was famous in his lifetime (1871-1942) as a great conductor, and, like Mahler, was a "Summer composer". He was also an important teacher, and among his disciples were Schönberg and Korngold. Zemlinsky´s music is tense and comes as close to Strauss to a total break with tonality, but he never takes the crucial step of going over the frontier. He wrote two one-acters on Oscar Wilde´s tales: " A Florentine Tragedy" and "The Dwarf" ("Der Zwerg"), and both are real shockers. The former is an ambiguous adultery situation concerning a mature merchant, his wife and Prince Guido Bardi; at first it would seem that the Prince can get away with seducing Simone´s wife by bent of paying dearly for offered goods, but honor weighs more heavily and Simone kills the Prince. His complex wife in the strange final moments tells him: "I never knew you were so strong", and he responds: "I never knew you were so beautiful". And apparently their deteriorated relationship takes new impulse from murder; pretty perverse, in fact, but of course Wilde wrote "Salome"…

Korngold was an adolescent genius both as pianist and composer widely recognized by Mahler, Nikisch, Walter and Strauss. Born in 1897 in Brno (Moravian capital), he was soon a part of Vienna´s creative scene. Written when he was nineteen, his dramatic acumen is surprising in "Violanta", a tremendous story of revenge, love and death in Venice during Carnival. As he later did in "Die Tote Stadt", he combines drama and comedy with notable effectiveness, with gorgeous Strauss-inspired orchestration and big, Puccinian tunes. Eventually Knorngold would become one of the best Hollywood composers.

A much-appreciated conductor was in charge: Stefan Lano; with his consumate command and clarity of gesture, he got good jobs out of a Colón Orchestra that is certainly far from its best periods. And he deeply understands the aesthetics of both operas. The Choir has little to do, but did it well under its new director Peter Burian, who has had a splendid European career.

The three singers in Zemlinsky were new to Buenos Aires. The cast was dominated by the vast acting powers of bass-baritone James Johnson, a renowned Wotan and Sachs; the center of his voice is a little arid but his top is resounding and his craft can only be admired. Tenor Evans Bowers was a pleasant surprise; his timbre is surely beautiful and he sings with impressive firmness. Mezzosoprano Deanne Meek had a rather unrewarding part; the voice is small but she acts and sings with fine professionalism.

In "Violanta" the protagonist was Eiko Senda, well-known here; I have never heard her voice sound so big and true and she acted with involvement. Bowers was again impressive in very singable music. I also enjoyed Wolfgang Schöne´s work as Violanta´s old husband; the artist has had a very long career associated with the Stuttgart Opera but his voice remains firm and of fine timbre and he moves like the seasoned bass-baritone he is. The others were local artists, with an extrovert job from Enrique Folger and on the other hand a properly introvert interpretation by Alejandra Malvino of Barbara, Violanta´s wet-nurse. Osvaldo Peroni did yet another grotesque as Matteo, Mónica Philibert was Bice and smaller parts were well-taken by Duilio Smiriglia, Norberto Marcos, Marina Silva and Laura Domínguez.

We finally come to the productions. Hans Hollmann (debut) worked with Enrique Bordolini (stage design and lightning) and Imme Möller (costumes) in a concept based on the same basic picture for both pieces, stressing their abundant similarities, with just the Brunelleschi cupola to identify Florence and San Marco to evoke Venice. The girl is in red in both works. I question the Twentieth-century clothes when the action and the dialogue indicate Renaissance ambience, and also the conventional gestures, especially in "Violanta", though the Carnival is well pictured, and the excess of melodrama (although the fault is partly Korngold´s librettist´s, Hans Müller-Einigen). But the double premiere had a generally satisfactory level and was well worth doing.

For Buenos Aires Herald
Tribuna Musical: Operatic triangles in the midst of war

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