Opera Critic » New York Philharmonic

In addition to teaching many of Mitteleuropa‘s most noted modernist composers, Alexander Zemlinsky also instructed and loved the young Alma Schindler, who later dumped him rather cruelly to marry Gustav Mahler.  As conductor James Conlon told the audience in a few words before only the second US performance (in concert) of Zemlinsky’s A Florentine Tragedy (the first was given at Bard College over the summer on a double bill with his other short opera, The Dwarf), this adaptation of dark dramatic fragments by Oscar Wilde stands as a psycho-sexual monument to the composer’s hurt feelings.  Set in Renaissance Florence, it tells the tale of the cuckolded merchant Simone, who returns home to discover Guido, the son of the city’s reigning duke, paying court to his wife Bianca.  After a series of barely polite exchanges followed by some tough talk, Simone challenges the young prince to a fight.  Knives are drawn and, receiving a light wound, the wronged husband prevails upon his faithless wife to bind it with a length of fabric.  He then uses that fabric to strangle the prince to death.  The killing produces neither horror nor regret.  In the opera’s luminescent finale Bianca, who once thought her husband a coward, marvels at his strength.  Simone, who had come to despise his cheating wife, finds himself enchanted by her beauty.
Zemlinsky’s dissonant score is everything one might expect from a work that premiered in Vienna in 1917.  Replete with musical allusions to Richard Strauss’s short, bloody operas Salome and Elektra (the former also after Wilde), it also anticipates the works of Berg and Schoenberg.  It is hard to imagine an ensemble in any country playing these 56 minutes of decadent modernism better than the New York Philharmonic.  Under Conlon’s baton it kept the audience on the edge of its seats with goose bumps.  As Simone, James Johnson commanded the entire role, his philharmonic debut, with gravitas and authority.  Tenor Anthony Dean Griffey captured the doomed prince’s insouciance with real musicianship.  Tatiana Pavlovskaya maintains a fine soprano that justifiably appears around the world, but it seemed somewhat out of place in a demanding mezzo role, her own philharmonic debut.  The orchestra and the young pianist Jonathan Biss warmed the hall in the first part of the program with a fine playing of Beethoven’s second piano concerto. – Paul du Quenoy