Alexander Zemlinsky’s “A Florentine Tragedy” in San Francisco

Excess by the Bay, the Beauty of It All

By Janos Gereben, 6/10/06

Alexander Zemlinsky's 1916 A Florentine Tragedy arrived in San Francisco
Friday night for the first time, 90 years old, but with the raging hormones
of a teenager. Zemlinsky's rapturous ode to (and slap at) Alma Schindler
Mahler Gropius Kokoschka Werfel, shook the rafters of Davies Hall in an
awesome echo of Salome's orgiastic demise, heard earlier in the evening.

Saved from calamitous aural and emotional surfeit by James Conlon's superbly
disciplined and yet passionately committed conducting of the San Francisco
Symphony, a full house applauded the opening of the Romantic Visions
festival, an event (excessively) dubbed From Paradise to the Abyss. (At
the Saturday performance, the evening ended with one of those rare, precious
moments of absolute silence, the stunned audience not erupting in applause
until after the supreme response of forgetting to breathe.)

"Moderation is a fatal thing, nothing succeeds like excess," Oscar Wilde had
said famously, and music inspired by his works proved the veracity of what
is surely more than a mere bon mot. Conlon programmed a brief but
wonderfully satisfying program of works by two exiles from, victims of Nazi
Germany, Zemlinsky and Franz Schreker, adding Richard Strauss for good

Conlon's "Three Dances After Oscar Wilde" opened the program, a 22-minute
medley of dance music from Schreker's 1908 The Birthday of the Infanta,
Zemlinsky's 1921 The Dwarf, and the finale (seven veils and all) of
Strauss' 1905 Salome. With large gestures and flowing melodies (at times
on gossamer wings), the three pieces merged into one another without pause
and free from a break in mood or spellbinding beauty. However faithful
Schreker and Zemlinsky might have been to the "School of Brahms," there was
Wagnerian splendor everywhere. The orchestra played superbly, sustaining the
many unison string passages, the Straussian chatter of brass floating on top
of the strings' velvet carpet.

The main course, Zemlinsky's 50-minute one-act opera, took off from where
Strauss left off, but I don't mean Salome. The brief overture closely
mirrors the opening of another Strauss opera, Der Rosenkavalier. As Conlon
explained on both nights (and demonstrated with recordings at a symposium on
Wednesday), just as the Octavian-Marschallin tryst is portrayed in the music
before the curtain goes up, the illicit sexual congress of Bianca and the
nobleman Guido is clearly limned in Zemlinsky's music.

Enter Simone, a merchant, Bianca's husband, and there begins what is
essentially a solo oratorio, against sweeping, raging, tempestuous
orchestral music, the baritone James Johnson pouring forth (without a glance
at the score) a Wotanesque narration, tinged with Alberich's guile, and
delivered with a diction that would be celebrated in Bayreuth. Kate Aldrich,
substituting for the indisposed Carol Vaness, and Covent Garden principal
tenor Kim Begley did excellently well, but it was Johnson's show, both by
his lion's share of the music and his powerful performance that met the
challenge of the orchestration.

Zemlinsky's orgiastic orchestral sound – worthy of the Gurrelieder period
of Schoenberg, and, again of Wagner – is a thing of wonder, both embracing
and playing counterpoint to the text. If you tune out the singers and the
text (thoughtfully provided in both the program and on supertitles), you can
listen to "silvery shadows"… the texture of damask, of a rich Venetian
robe… satyrs and nymphs… spinning… the "crystal of silence" all on the
instruments, as if reading a gripping story in a gorgeously illustrated

Wilde's conclusion of the awkward verbal ménage à trois is every bit as
shocking as the finale of Salome. In the latter, the princess kisses
Jokanaan's mouth, his head already severed at her order. In the Zemlinsky
(written by a man rejected by Alma, a disappointment haunting him for the
rest of his life), the cuckolded husband is embraced and kissed by the
adulterous wife when Simone kills her lover.

"Why did you not tell me you were so strong?" Bianca asks, "with tender
rapture" (moments after she urged her lover to kill the husband). "Why did
you not tell me you were beautiful?" responds Simone. The music swells (and
swells and swells), worth a dozen veils. Curtain, and the question on
everybody's mind: "Why haven't I heard this before?" This writer too asked
the same question, even though having attended a staged performance in Santa
Fe, and having heard the music before several times. But *this* I haven't

Among the especially happy people in the audience: Los Angeles Opera
executives, who came to the city to the north to hear Conlon, the incoming
music director of LA Opera.

Next on the echt-romantic agenda: the Verdi Requiem, Tchaikovsky's
Francesca da Rimini, and Liszt's Dante Symphony in a multimedia
presentation envisioned by the composer a century and a half ago. Musical
excess by the Bay: bring it on!

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