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Zemlinsky - Eine florentinische Tragodie

The Europadisc Review

Zemlinsky - Eine florentinische Tragodie

Marc Albrecht, Ausrine Stundyte (soprano), Nikolai Schukoff (tenor), John Lundgren ...

£13.07

Composed in 1915–16 and premiered in Stuttgart in 1917, Alexander von Zemlinsky’s Eine florentinische Tragödie (‘A Florentine Tragedy’) is the first of two one-act operas based on plays by Oscar Wilde which together helped establish the composer’s reputation following their long overdue revival in the early 1980s. The plot is a simple one, almost stark, a single scene played in a continuous 50-minute span. In George Bernard Shaw’s succinct formulation, the essence of opera is ‘when a tenor and soprano want to make love, but are prevented from d... read more

Composed in 1915–16 and premiered in Stuttgart in 1917, Alexander von Zemlinsky’s Eine florentinische Tragödie (‘A Florentine Tragedy’) is the first of two one-act operas based on plays by Oscar Wilde... read more

Zemlinsky - Eine florentinische Tragodie

Zemlinsky - Eine florentinische Tragodie

Marc Albrecht, Ausrine Stundyte (soprano), Nikolai Schukoff (tenor), John Lundgren (baritone), Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra

Composed in 1915–16 and premiered in Stuttgart in 1917, Alexander von Zemlinsky’s Eine florentinische Tragödie (‘A Florentine Tragedy’) is the first of two one-act operas based on plays by Oscar Wilde which together helped establish the composer’s reputation following their long overdue revival in the early 1980s. The plot is a simple one, almost stark, a single scene played in a continuous 50-minute span. In George Bernard Shaw’s succinct formulation, the essence of opera is ‘when a tenor and soprano want to make love, but are prevented from doing so by a baritone’, and A Florentine Tragedy fits the template perfectly, albeit with an alarming twist in the tale.

In fact, it is the baritone – the merchant Simone – who has by far the most singing time in this claustrophobic menage â trois set in Renaissance Florence. Arriving home from a business trip, he is surprised to discover that his wife Bianca is in the company of a young man who turns out to be Prince Guido, son of the Duke of Florence. At first fastidiously polite, the voluble host extends his hospitality and plies his wares to the prince. But he soon grasps the true nature of the situation, with the surreptitious asides between Bianca and the prince not going unnoticed. With the amorous pair doing little to disguise their contempt for the tradesman, tensions gradually rise, until Simone challenges Guido to a duel, first with swords and then daggers. To avoid any spoilers, let’s just say that the outcome – and Bianca’s reaction to it – is a surprising one, and thereby lies much of the opera’s fascination.

Although there are echoes of Puccini’s Il tabarro and Rachmaninov’s Francesca da Rimini, the opera is suffused with lush post-Wagnerian harmonies and sweeping melodic lines that owe most to Strauss, Mahler and Zemlinsky’s brother-in-law, Schoenberg. The overture, like the introduction to Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, is clearly a musical depiction of unbridled sexual activity, and its music returns tellingly in the lovers’ music before the climactic, lurid duel.

The power of this work goes far beyond the simple dramatic outlines sketched here, and in recent years it has received several fine recordings (the most recent, from BR Klassik, just a few weeks ago). The strength of this new one from Pentatone is that it originates from a 2017 stage production by the Dutch National Opera, and though stage noises are mostly restrained, the dramatic tension is palpable. In large measure this is due to the expert conducting of Marc Albrecht, who deploys the forces of the Netherlands Philharmonic to powerful effect, allowing the music to bloom where needed, but keeping a sure finger on the underlying pulse. The extravagant orchestration is vividly caught by the Pentatone team, yet the voices remain clearly audible throughout.

Leading the cast is John Lundgren as Simone, who endows the character with both quick wits and nobility. He may not have the tightly-focussed lieder singer’s sensibilities displayed by Christopher Maltman on the BR Klassik recording, but he is marvellous at observing the quick changes of mood indicated in detail in Zemlinsky’s score. And as the work progresses, so his stature and the emotional temperature rise inexorably until the final pay-off. Soprano Ausrine Stundyte captures perfectly the ambiguous nature of Bianca’s passions: her lust for the prince, and hatred for her ‘dull’ husband, while tenor Nikolai Schukoff has just enough heroic timbre (and not a little sweetness) to make the character plausible without overshadowing the married couple. It’s Lundgren and Albrecht, however, who make this performance so gripping. The astonishing colours of Zemlinsky’s score are radiantly apparent, and the work builds to a thrilling climax, which puts one in mind of a sort of alternative-universe Wozzeck where the (anti-)hero is less unhinged and downtrodden, and possessing infinitely more guile.

Unlike the BR Klassik set, Pentatone’s contains a full libretto and translation, together with an excellent introductory essay by Kasper van Kooten. For a turn-of-the-century ‘fix’, rich with layers of Freudian subtext and dripping with Viennese Secessionist atmosphere, this release is now a strong recommendation for one of Zemlinsky’s operatic masterpieces.

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Recently taken under the wing of Universal Music Group, the British label Hyperion has a long-established reputation for excellence across a wide range of genres. Its landmark complete recording of Schubert’s complete songs under the curatorship of pianist Graham Johnson, the complete solo piano music of Liszt by Leslie Howard, Purcell’s choral music under the direction Robert King, and the still-active multi-disc survey of Romantic Piano Concertos all bear testament to Hyperion’s high standards of performance, recording and background research. The Schubert cycle in particular spawned a number of successors, including complete surveys of lieder by Schumann and Brahms as well as highly-regarded cycles of French melodies.

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