The double bill of Zemlinsky’s A Florentine Tragedy with Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, currently being presented by the Canadian Opera Company, is a marriage made in heaven, a pair of complementary opposites who seem to belong together.
They’re alike in some key ways…
- Both operas are set in Florence
- They are roughly contemporary in composition from around 1917-1918
- Both operas have plots driven by avarice and disparities of wealth
Yet even so, …
- Zemlinsky is not well-known, while Puccini is arguably the most popular composer of the 20th Century
- A Florentine Tragedy is dark, while Gianni Schicchi is a comic masterpiece
- Notwithstanding the date of composition, Zemlinsky’s music is often dissonant and disturbing, whereas Puccini’s occasional dissonances are usually zany rather than disturbing, and serve to set up the luscious melodies he spins. But Zemlinsky does offer a few wonderful climaxes.
Conducted by Andrew Davis, I believe this is the largest COC orchestral complement we’ve seen in a long time, at least in the Zemlinsky. Huge as the assembled forces may have been for most of the work, Davis held them delicately in check, swelling only occasionally, particularly at the volcanic conclusion. The Zemlinsky work sounds a lot like Richard Strauss, with the expressionist flair we find from operas such as Elektra or Salome.
Wilson Chin’s set design captured these two very distinct worlds, allowing them to cohere wonderfully as a satisfying evening of opera. The dark work (called a “tragedy” but maybe not so tragic) unfolds as a love triangle on a big bare stage, while the light comedy takes place in a cramped space full of junk. Although they’re different the worlds of both are so preoccupied with property and materialism that it’s manifested in the physical environment of the set.
Bass-baritone Alan Held had a busy night. As Simone in the tragedy he’s singing a great deal, much of it in a high register, followed by the role of Gianni Schicchi, which isn’t much easier, also lying high. The teutonic style of the Zemlinsky seems to be a better fit for Held’s voice than the Italianate comedy, although true to his name he more than held his own.
While I laughed throughout the Puccini I enjoyed the dark opera more. For me it’s a brand-new work, full of wonderful moments, luscious orchestral sonorities, unexpected emotional turns, and a wonderful concluding five minutes. Director Catherine Malfitano is to be congratulated for shaping this complex and ambiguous work successfully. Bianca, Simone’s wife, is shown with her husband in an oversize portrait centre stage (you can see it in the photo) with her husband’s hand in a controlling position on her neck. In their first encounter he gently seizes her –if that isn’t a complete oxymoron—by the back of the neck. While this may seem obvious, the story is anything but. Held’s physical presence is threatening even though he is subservient to the Prince, who is busily cuckolding his subject right in Simone’s own home.
Gun-Brit Barkmin makes a wonderfully complex Bianca, surrendering to Michael König’s Prince, yet seemingly in thrall to her husband’s complex dominance. It should be no surprise that this twisted tale comes to us from Oscar Wilde. Malfitano’s conclusion to A Florentine Tragedy provided a wonderful echo of the cloak from one of the original Puccini triptych, namely Il Tabarro ; where the cloak in the Puccini shocker conceals a dead body, in this case the cloak leads to an unexpectedly loving and sensual embrace.
While I found the Puccini a huge relief after the darkness of Zemlinsky, I wasn’t sure about the updating. Instead of Medieval Florence we get something closer to Jersey Shore: which is apt I suppose considering that Malfitano is both American and Italian. Sometimes the updating was very good, as for instance when René Barbera as Rinuccio sang his big paean to Florence from atop a pile of junk. I worried for his safety –and no this isn’t to be mistaken for Spiderman—with the young tenor perched easily twenty feet above the stage floor. I reminded myself that while the set appeared rickety of course it was carefully constructed to support him. Overall I found that the modernization made the show warm & fuzzy rather than edgy, defusing some of the laughter that the opera can sometimes generate. It’s still lots of fun though and especially delightful after the Zemlinsky.
Barbera’s singing was one of the highlights of the evening, along with the Lauretta of Simone Osborne, singing “Oh mio babbino caro”. I felt Davis was channelling Toscanini, imbuing the operas with wonderful pace & verve, but also sometimes challenging the singers to perhaps sing faster than they might have wished.
Held, Barbera & Osborne make a loveable family unit, in this crowd-pleaser of an opera. I hope no one is scared off by the opera composed by a guy whose name starts with a Z. This double bill deserves to score well with the Toronto audience.
The Canadian Opera Company production of A Florentine Tragedy and Gianni Schicchi continue at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto until May 25th.