London Philharmonic Opening Concert of 2012-13 Season/Vladimir Jurowski conducts Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten and Zemlinsky’s Eine florentinische Tragödie

Die Frau ohne Schatten [orchestral excerpts, compiled Jurowski]
Eine florentinische Tragödie – Opera in one act to a libretto by the composer after Max Meyerfeld’s German translation of the play by Oscar Wilde [concert performance sung in German with English surtitles]

Simone – Albert Dohmen
Bianca – Heike Wessels
Guido – Sergei Skorokhodov

London Philharmonic Orchestra
Vladimir Jurowski

Reviewed by: Peter Reed

Reviewed: 26 September, 2012
Venue: Southbank Centre, London – Royal Festival Hall

Orchestra programming in London is nothing if not adventurous, but, even so, just the first three months of the LPO’s new season is bursting with originality, lateral thinking and unexpected connections. This concert was a case in point, with the theme of husbands and wives discovering, against the odds, that they really love each other driving the complex layers of Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman without a Shadow) and the more concise, sexually basic concerns of Zemlinsky’s shabby little shocker.

The longish (nearly 50 minutes) sequence of orchestral excerpts from Die Frau gave such a vivid presence to Strauss’s huge canvas as almost to render any vocal contribution a sort of obbligato luxury. All the vital elements of the fertility fairy tale were there – the stark, thumping contour of the Keikobad motif, the shrill cry of the Emperor’s falcon, soaring love music, lofty spiritual yearnings and a storm scene to rival that in the composer’s Alpine Symphony. Just occasionally, even in this skilful précis of Strauss’s longest opera, you could feel the inspiration marking time, but that was no reflection on the virtuoso playing going on in the colossal orchestra, which included two celestas, a glass harmonica, what currently exists of the RFH organ, a wind-machine and off-stage brass. In the short-list of last-gasp, late-romantic musical monuments, Die Frau is a major player, with music brilliantly tailored to the stage.

That’s not quite the case with Alexander Zemlinsky’s slightly earlier (1917) Oscar Wilde-based one-acter, the drama of which leaps fully formed from text and music. In his excellent pre-concert talk, David Trendell made the point that aspects of Zemlinsky’s life (to do with the disastrous affair his sister had during her marriage to Schoenberg and his own rejection by Alma Schindler who favoured Mahler – it was all go in turn-of-the-century Vienna) give this hour-long opera its fevered intensity. It’s a pithy love-triangle: cloth-merchant Simone discovers his wife Bianca alone with handsome, noble Guido; it’s clear what’s going on, but when Simone kills his rival in a duel, husband and wife fall in love all over again, over the dead body – “I didn’t know you were so strong”; “I didn’t know you are so beautiful” – straightforward kinky caveman stuff.

Zemlinsky isn’t as well known as Schoenberg, Mahler and Strauss, but he is easily in their league as a composer/conductor. His forward-looking score surges, it is torrid; it defines character and situation with consummate accuracy, moving fluidly from the brooding suspicion of Wagner’s Hunding (Die Walküre) to the expressionist hysteria of Schoenberg’s Erwartung, which A Florentine Tragedy rivals in terms of heady stream-of-consciousness. The libretto may anchor the opera in all sorts of detail, but the music runs away with its blatant but potent symbolism.

As in the Strauss, you just marvelled at the charismatic rapport Jurowski has with the LPO. He seems to be inside the orchestra, and his pragmatic, understated direction worked wonder with mercurially responsive ensemble, quality of sound and a total identification with the music. It was dominated by the baleful Simone of Albert Dohmen (who has recorded the role), his alpha-male grip carried the drama, his sturdy baritone surviving the orchestral onslaught unleashed behind him. Sergei Skorokhodov’s lyric tenor suffered a bit in this respect, although you could hear what Bianca saw in Guido in the love duet, and he admirably managed the difficult task of Guido singing while being throttled to death. As Bianca, Heike Wessels used her sumptuous mezzo to seductive effect, her stage presence was magnetic, and she made you understand why Bianca would change her loyalties so decisively.

  • Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 (available on BBC iPlayer for seven days afterwards)
  • LPO

  • Southbank Centre

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