Oscar Wilde never finished A Florentine Tragedy, an unsettling little story of the attempted seduction of a merchant’s wife by the local prince, and that prince’s death at the hands of her jealous husband, who comes home early in the piece to find them together. The play is a linguistic game between the languages of lust and commerce, a far cry from the rapturous romanticism of Wilde’s The Nightingale and the Rose. As the evening builds towards its fatal climax, all three characters are strangely aware of how they stand, even while they vainly hope the others have still not realised.

Lawrence Thackeray (Guido) and Becca Marriott (Bianca) © Lidia Crisafulli
Lawrence Thackeray (Guido) and Becca Marriott (Bianca)
© Lidia Crisafulli

Director Pamela Schermann makes this clear from the start, opening her production with an erotically charged, wordless scene between Bianca and her noble lover Guido Bardi, then allowing Simone, Bianca’s husband, to enter to the immediate and incontrovertible discovery that his wife is definitely having an affair. At first the lovers struggle back into their clothes with some embarrassment, and seem hopeful of covering things up; but, as Simone’s attitude becomes ever more testing and threatening, Bardi seems spurred to show off his sexual connection with Bianca, becoming increasingly and openly passionate towards her in defiance of Simone, until finally Simone challenges Bardi to the duel which will be his death – and the ironic rekindling of Bianca’s love for her husband.

Yole Lambrecht’s dramatic design dresses the stage with the fabric of Simone’s trade, huge swags of velvet and silk in red, gold and pink plunging from ceiling to floor to create a luxurious, sensual atmosphere. The marital bed, similarly swathed, takes centre stage, with a chandelier above; it feels dangerously close to a tart’s boudoir, but as Simone starts to slash pieces of fabric with some very nasty-looking shears, or goes to take time out behind a piece of sheer voile, we see how well the design integrates into the directoral concept. Costumes take a twist on modern clothing to recall the story’s Renaissance setting: Bianca’s long, sheer, black negligee is bolstered by a stiff corset, producing a ghostly image of an historical gown, while Guido Bardi’s purple silk shirt and cravat scream tasteless, pointless luxury, though his black trousers and shoes are undoubtedly modern. While Bardi and Simone fight briefly with swords, Simone spends much of the early part of the opera holding the vicious fabric shears open in his hand, using them to portray cuckold’s horns in one memorable moment; he finally kills Bardi by strangling him on the bed with his bare hands, to Bianca’s amazement and perhaps arousal.

Nick Dwyer (Simone) © Lidia Crisafulli
Nick Dwyer (Simone)
© Lidia Crisafulli

Zemlinsky’s score is a challenging one, and Andrew Charity’s piano accompaniment is bursting with brio, aggression and vigour. Zemlinsky’s constant attack on our ears can become wearing at times, and here the maintenance of tension on stage is key: in this production, tension tended to peak and trough, which made it harder to accept the score. Bringing Simone’s realisation of their infidelity into the piece so very early does create a problem in this respect: we can’t see why Simone waits so long to act, but intriguingly, Bardi shares our bewilderment. Occasionally, there were problems with singers’ projection and the resulting balance of sound, the piano sometimes dominating the vocal line; but a more insistent problem throughout the evening was diction, a fault not due to the singers, but rather down to the unsympathetic setting of words in this score.

Becca Marriott's Bianca exuded sultry appeal towards Bardi, while interacting with her husband with a dumb blankness and silent fury which pointed to the desperate hole at the heart of their marriage: two people bored with each other to the point of disgust. Simone fails to see, repeatedly, what on earth Bardi finds attractive about Bianca; and part of this story is how the advent of Bardi provokes Simone and Bianca into appreciating one another afresh.

Lawrence Thackeray (Guido), Becca Marriott (Bianca) and Nicolas Dwyer (Simone) © Lidia Crisafulli
Lawrence Thackeray (Guido), Becca Marriott (Bianca) and Nicolas Dwyer (Simone)
© Lidia Crisafulli

As Guido Bardi, Lawrence Thackeray’s characterisation focused almost entirely on his lust for Bianca, kissing her mouth or neck with reckless abandon, and panting open-mouthed with sensual ecstasy for such extended periods that it became first otiose, and finally hard to believe. Although Bardi is certainly an unlikeable character, Wilde does give him a certain sophistication and disdainful worldliness which Thackeray didn’t touch on, aiming instead for a simple sensualist, which is certainly one reading of the character, but couldn’t sustain interest for a full hour. Nick Dwyer’s Simone, by contrast, grew consistently in assurance, steadily establishing himself as a credible physical threat, and giving Simone a bitter emotional intensity which kept his actions believable, though Dwyer appeared less fully integrated in this role than in his Salieri, also part of Opera in the City’s programme. Having the bed at the centre of the stage made for some static stage action at times, although the fight scenes were dynamic and exciting; Simone and Bianca’s final union beside Bardi’s body was darkly ecstatic.