Musical and dramatic chalk and cheese, the coupling of Zemlinsky’s headily Teutonic one-act melodama A Florentine Tragedy with Puccini’s sun-kissed black comedy Gianni Schicchi might not seem, on the face of it, to be an obvious one for an operatic double bill. Yet both are set in Renaissance Florence, both centre around greed and deception, both, despite their disparate musical styles, were written only a few years apart and premiered almost exactly a century ago, and their dramatic moods as tragedy and comedy are complementary. A further link is that Puccini even considered the unfinished Oscar Wilde play upon which the Zemlinsky is based as an operatic subject himself, until his publishers dissuaded him – everyone, it seemed, wanted some of the success of Strauss’ Wildean Salome.

Ausrine Stundyte (Bianca) and John Lundgren (Simone) © Matthias Baus
Ausrine Stundyte (Bianca) and John Lundgren (Simone)
© Matthias Baus

Director Jan Philipp Gloger treats the two operas scenically in completely different ways, yet draws some of these dramatic parallels, particularly the lure of money (an obsession that also characterised his Bayreuth Flying Dutchman) and the consequences of greed. Eine florentine Tragodie is presented on a white rectangular stage that is often in motion as a symbol of the unsteady ground on which the characters find themselves. Trapped in a loveless marriage, Bianca seeks solace from her husband (Simone) in Guido, son of the Duke of Florence, a relationship that here they literally carry on behind the cuckold’s back as he reveals he’s far more interested in his mercantile interests. The setting may be abstract, but the characterisation is detailed and follows the text closely: we are on Bianca’s side when she encourages Guido to kill Simone as the cat-and-mouse baiting between the two men leads to a fatal duel and unexpectedly it is the interloper who is killed.

Nikolai Schukoff (Guido), John Lundgren (Simone) and Ausrine Stundyte (Bianca) © Clärchen & Matthias Baus
Nikolai Schukoff (Guido), John Lundgren (Simone) and Ausrine Stundyte (Bianca)
© Clärchen & Matthias Baus

One can’t help sensing irony in Wilde’s title: is the tragedy that a man caught in a love triangle gets killed by the cuckolded husband, or is it that it has to take that death for the desire in a loveless marriage to be rekindled? For that is the twist at the end, when Bianca finally finds her husband’s action in killing his rival turns her on, and he belatedly recognises her beauty. As an hour-long three-hander, there’s little room for weakness and Dutch National Opera fielded a formidable trio of singers in John Lundgren, Ausrine Stundyte and Nikolai Schukoff – Lundgren’s searing, commanding Simone had the lion’s share of the music, but Stundyte made for a wilful, driven Bianca and Schukoff brought a degree of sympathy to Guido’s claim over her. If the orchestral contribution in all its overheated late Romanticism felt a little less overwhelming than it can (at least from my rear-stalls seat) under the experienced Marc Albrecht, the upside was impeccable balance between pit and stage, such that every word of the singers carried.

Massimo Cavalletti (Gianni Schicchi) and ensemble © Clärchen & Matthias Baus
Massimo Cavalletti (Gianni Schicchi) and ensemble
© Clärchen & Matthias Baus

As might be expected, Puccini’s comedy provides a complete contrast. It’s difficult to stage the opera naturalistically without hamming up the visual and musical humour – the slapstick and comic timing, as well as the pathos, are already all there in the score. But Gloger’s contemporary take – complete with mobile phone jokes – is sleekly and effortlessly plotted and the broad comedy takes the audience with it until, at the very end, the walls of the room rise to leave everyone hanging precariously on the bare, mobile stage and the ‘victors’ in Gianni Schicchi’s scheming join the protragonists of Zemlinsky’s tragedy as symbols of the different results of their obsession with wealth.

<i>Gianni Schicchi</i> © DNO 2017
Gianni Schicchi
© DNO 2017

Massimo Cavalletti led a largely Italian cast as an unexaggerated, practical Schicchi, bringing clear diction and warm, attractive baritonal timbre. Mariangela Sicilia’s Lauretta gave a nicely poised “O mio babbino caro” and Alessandro Scotto di Luzio made for an ardent Rinuccio. Of the rest, Enkelejda Shkosa’s Zita stood out for its clear vocalisation and characterisation, but there was barely a weak link right down to the smallest cameo. As in the Zemlinsky, Albrecht conjured suave and energetic playing from the Netherlands Philharmonic and he paced the comedy with great skill.

****1