The music of Viennese composer Alexander Zemlinsky often lies somewhere between that of his romantic rival Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg, but the model for the one-act opera Eine florentinische Tragödie, A Florentine Tragedy, is clear: it bears a strong family resemblance to Richard Strauss' Salome. For his text Zemlinksy even sought out an unfinished and similarly lurid drama by Oscar Wilde, whose persecution for being gay was apparently not an issue in wide-open Vienna. The opera is not performed much, but it has an added kick coming from the fact that the love triangle depicted, featuring a noblewoman who is turned on when her husband strangles her lover in their boudoir, held resonances for Zemlinsky himself, who had seen his intended, Alma Schindler, take off with both Mahler and the architect Walter Gropius. (Consult songwriter Tom Lehrer for a full roadmap.) This is not just historical speculation but is fully documented in correspondence between Zemlinsky and Alma. At any rate, conductor Vladimir Jurowski's championing of the work seems justified. The music replicates Strauss' combination of passionate flow and extreme vocal intensity, and it opens with an orchestral prelude that fills in for the missing scene in the unfinished Wilde manuscript in which the illicit lovers are going at it. This is superior stuff, and Jurowski gets crackling intensity out of the London Philharmonic Orchestra on this live recording. The trio of singers, mezzo Heike Wessels as the easily swayed Bianca, tenor Sergey Skorokhodov as the lover Guido, and baritone Albert Dohmen as the enraged husband Simone, not only surmount the technical challenges but get the claustrophobia-inducing, confined quality of this work, which is more of a chamber opera than Salome. The singing is not quite as powerful in the Six Maeterlinck Songs, Op. 13, but this set of songs, too, has overtones of Zemlinsky's romantic entanglements. The LPO's live sound from Southbank Centre is fully acceptable, and for lovers of decadent Vienna this will be a nice find.
Zemlinsky: A Florentine Tragedy; Six Maeterlinck Songs Review
by James Manheim