When violence makes a man sexy
In A FLORENTINE TRAGEDY it’s the survival of the fittest. And anything goes – including murder. And the girl? She thinks it’s great. Conductor Marc Albrecht peers into the abyss
The world is teetering on the brink and at the same time hurtling into the modern age – and the hectic evolution of music in the years between 1905 and 1920 mirrors it all. The music of the period is unique: insistent, omnipresent and nudging the extremes. And all its strands meet in Vienna.
Alexander von Zemlinsky, Alban Berg and Erich Wolfgang Korngold are at home in this Viennese society. Although they are of different generations, they are kindred spirits, teacher and student, corresponding with each other, hosting soirées, performing their pieces and critiquing the works of their colleagues.
The three men reflect the plurality of the era. Korngold is bubbly, cheeky and ironic, his »Much Ado About Nothing« almost popular in tone. At the opposite end of the scale is the soberly sensuous sound of Berg’s »Seven Early Songs«. And Zemlinsky has created a world-class work in the form of his A FLORENTINE TRAGEDY, arguably the darkest in the history of opera.
These works are works of agony reflecting the First World War, the all-pervading disaster of those years. The dip in population, too, is mirrored in the music: Korngold downsizes his musical version of the Shakespeare play to take account of the drop in the number of musicians available; Zemlinsky duplicates many of his instruments in his score to ensure a roundness of volume, even if he’s short of musicians.
The complex works of this period have a welter of sound written into their scores, which poses quite a challenge for me. Zemlinsky is hard to conduct; his orchestras number close to a hundred musicians, which can overwhelm the acoustics of a standard auditorium. What makes his music so fascinating to conduct is its colour and subtlety. When I read the score, I can hear every detail of the music in my head. You have to take decisions constantly. What’s the dynamic between the various voices? How to make complex tonal structures appear transparent? And if my decisions are to be put into practice, there has to be a musical dialogue going on at rehearsals.
The head-on brutality portrayed in A FLORENTINE TRAGEDY is already there in Oscar Wilde’s source text. While Simone the cloth merchant is away on business, Bianca, his wife, begins an affair with the young Guido. The unequal tussle between the two men is rendered in the music as well. Simone, a heroic baritone, prevails, accompanied by a wall of orchestral sound, and this power is a source of fascination to Bianca. Guido, her lover, is a tenorino, pretty of voice; he is not in Simone’s league, however, and is killed in the duel. After years of marital strife, the killing of Guido falls for her husband a second time.
I shudder at the seductive effect of such brutality – as if violence were an aphrodisiac, heightening lust through its very lethality. We’re looking into the abyss.