So wrote Alexander Zemlinsky to Alma Mahler when she objected to the premiere of Eines Florentine Tragodie (A Florentine Tragedy). The work was conducted by Vladimir Jurowski at the Royal Festival Hall last night. The lines are quoted in Anthony Beaumont's pioneering biography of Zemlinsky, (2000) by far the best authority on Zemlinsky ever. Beaumont is seminal, not only because his work was so original, but because he navigates his way around the myths that have grown up about the composer. He dismisses, for example, the influence of Korngold, who was only 18 when A Florentine Tragedy was written. More importantly Beaumont shows how Zemlinsky can be appreciated other than through Klimt-gilded sentimentality. Zemlinsky's far more challenging.
Zemlinsky's A Florentine Tragedy employs luxurious excess - glorious swathes of shimmering strings, arpeggios that flicker like golden light. One could be seduced by such gorgeousness and swoon into the same trap as Bianca fell into when she married. Or Alma, for that matter. The sumptuousness of A Florentine Tragedy is a tragedy, make no mistake. Its sumptuousness deceives. Those fooled by glamour lose their souls. Interpreting Zemlinsky on a superficial level is to miss the emotional rigour at the heart of his work.
Throughout much of his life, Zemlinsky returned to the "Alma theme", where an ugly man is rejected by a beautiful but shallow woman. He's not nursing his wounds so much as finding a metaphor for art. Zemlinsky wasn't good looking but he created beauty because he was an artist, overcoming obstacles. When Simone kills Guido, Bianca falls in love with him because he's "strong". Is violence a sign of strength? Have this pair any idea of the consequences of killing Guido The Prince of Florence? Psychologically, nothing rings true about this conclusion, if the opera is understood only as thwarted love story. Simone is far too sharp to trust Bianca. We don't know how the story might have ended if Oscar Wilde had finished writing it. But that suits Zemlinsky, who can instead focus on the inner drama of artist and art.
Simone does most of the singing: Guido and Bianca are largely ciphers. Albert Dohmen was clearly unwell. He looked flushed, perspired and drank a lot of water. Fever? If his projection was under par, his phrasing was precise, and got the notes even with less fire than he might otherwise. In the circumstances, it was a heroic performance. He was clearly suffering, yet he did his duty as an artist. True to the role! In the Royal Festival Hall, Sergei Skorokhodov (Guido) and Heike Wessels (Bianca) were hard to hear. On the broadcast, the BBC engineers adjusted the balances in their favour. Always in live performance, you must make allowances. In any case, Zemlinsky's writing a monologue for Simone, with the other roles as props.
Interpretation is pertinent to performance. Jurowski's Zemlinsky is lovingly soft focused. Has he heard past the myth of Vienna City of Dreams? He can't be blamed, for this approach is so prevalent these days that it smothers engagement with the music and individuality of composers. Unfortunately, too, because some audiences are hostile to any whiff of modernity, in politics as well as in music, they won't stand for anything but doggedly retro, even if it means not listening too carefully. Let us remember that Zemlinsky and Schoenberg were dear friends until Mathilde Zemlinsky's affair with Richard Gerstl, which ended in Gerstl's suicide. "One life has to be sacrificed to save two others".
Individual concerns superseded by the triumph of art. Far from being banned from seeing Alma, as she melodramtically asserted, Mahler let Zemlinsky give her music lessons, gave him work and would have conducted his Der Traumgörge had Mahler's contract with the Hofoper not been terminated two days before the premiere. All the more reason for interpreting A Florentine Tragedy as the struggle for artistic integrity. Simone's "strength" isn't physical but artistic. The London Philharmonic Orchestra are so good that they detail the music nicely, even if there was no sense in this performance of greater complexity. I learned my Zemlinsky from James Conlon, but his work is infinitely superseded by conductors prepared to go deeper. The closest we get to a penetrating Florentine Tragedy is the recording by Riccardo Chailly. Gerd Albrecht and Armin Jordan are also recommended.
In the first half Jurowski conducted orchestral episodes from Richard Strauss Die Frau ohne Schatten. Eighty years ago it was common to hear programmes of "bleeding chunks", so there's historic precedent. Modern ears, trained by easy access to whole recordings, don't take so easily to the style. I didn't go expecting to hear the opera, so listened to the excerpts as "abstract sound". On this level, the innate theatricality of the orchestration shines through. Strauss throws in all the effects he can – on stage trumpet and trombone band, wind machines, thunder machines, military drum, two celestes, glockenspiel and glass harmonica. The London Philharmonic Orchestra played with colour and gusto. Once you get past the idea of the "missing" opera, you can enjoy the orchestra having fun. Plenty more about Zemlinsky on this site.