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Wilde and Wooly Tales

New York
Avery Fisher Hall
06/09/2002 -  
Alexander von Zemlinsky: A Florentine Tragedy; The Dwarf
American Symphony Orchestra
Leon Botstein (conductor)

Alexander von Zemlinsky might be just a footnote in music history but for his intimate association with two other composers of the Viennese fin-de-siecle. Composition teacher and probable lover of Alma Schindler, he became friendly with his student’s fiancé Gustav Mahler, even providing surrogate lessons in basic counterpoint for him in time for their application in the latter’s Fifth Symphony. Alma, the Mia Farrow of her generation, was fascinated by men small in physical but large in intellectual stature and did everything in her power to facilitate the career of her mentor, but he still felt spurned and undervalued, constantly brooding over his noticeably unattractive physiognomy. Even after his sister married Arnold Schoenberg, Zemlinsky still felt himself an outsider and identified strongly with the character of the dwarf in Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale The Birthday of the Infanta, a filigreed grotesquerie wherein a princess is given a human to be her toy and ultimately rejects and kills it. After Richard Strauss scandalized the opera world with Salome, the stories of Wilde were in demand and seemed destined to guarantee big box office. The two adapted by Zemlinsky were featured on Sunday afternoon’s exotic bill of fare by the American Symphony Orchestra.

A Florentine Tragedy was premiered by Max von Schillings and contains many resemblances to his own opera Mona Lisa, composed in the same year of 1915. Both works center around the story of an illicit love affair with a cinquecento figure, although Zemlinsky eschews the then popular device of time travel invoked by his colleague. Actually, the Wilde plot is eerily similar to the actual circumstances of Mathilde Schoenberg’s abandonment of her husband and her taking up residency with the painter Richard Gerstl, almost as if Zemlinsky were capitalizing on his own family’s notoriety in a manner akin to the original playwright’s outrageous public persona.

Leon Botstein has certainly brought his orchestra up to an entirely new level and this season has been a breakout year for their new sense of eloquence. Now much more reliable than the regular tenant of this auditorium, whose checkered recent history of fumbled transition has monopolized the local headlines, the ASO presents superior performances of their leader’s arcane repertory choices to the delight and edification of all. Although Carl Halvorson shouldered the load as Simone in the curtain raiser, it was really the instrumental ensemble that was the star. What was most appealing in this highly charged performance was the floridity of the orchestral sound, a perfumed atmosphere perfectly evocative of Wilde’s rather problematic motivations of character. Mary Phillips was most impressive when shaping a full force high note, although her role as Bianca is a subordinate one vocally, if not romantically.

Much easier to handle are the motivations of the characters in Der Zwerg, less of an equivocal story and more of a pathetic object lesson. Again the orchestra was brilliant, evoking the festive Spanish atmosphere with its hint of the Janissary (one of Zemlinsky’s grandparents was Turkish) and providing an ironic background of comic operetta at the most tragic moments. Richard Troxell was a masterful actor of the vocal, Mime with Siegfried’s voice, especially freewheeling and secure as the handsome cavalier (the identifying Victorian fairy tale motif is that the ugly dwarf has never seen his own image, hence all of the mirrors are covered) and frighteningly transformed when he realizes his true appearance. His exclamation of horror was not a scream but rather an eerie sucking-in sound, something from the realm of the truly ghoulish and yet smallish, an imp not a demon. Dominique Labelle acted convincingly with her face and body, but less so with her voice, which should be totally unconcerned about her surroundings and only peevish about the lateness and inadequacies of her birthday gifts. The other cast members were passable; one realizes that this is not the Met.

Just to show that I can misquote Oscar Wilde as well as the next fellow, he once said that his favorite at the opera was Wagner because the music was so loud that one could talk away at leisure throughout the performance. The obverse of this phenomenon was sadly apparent this afternoon. Whenever Maestro Botstein unleashed the full force of his marvelous ensemble, the singers were immediately submerged by the sound. This is perhaps an occupational hazard of concert versions of the operatic repertoire, but here little or no effort was made to achieve a proper sense of balance. Often we had to take on faith that the singers were properly communicating their roles. It’s a tough call, but I for one was happy to revel in the opulent sonority of this fine symphonic assemblage.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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