Strauss’ Die Frau Ohne Schatten is perhaps his most problematic opera, in that it contains all that is best and worst in him, to the most maddening degrees. Famously he failed to respond instinctively to Hoffmansthal’s symbol-laden libretto, and the music reflects this: though Strauss is at the peak of his powers technically, the opera was effortfully and unenthusiastically composed (we have the composer’s word on this) and the music remains largely earthbound despite its extraordinary energy and endless resource. Eschewing Strauss’ own orchestral gloss on portions of this work (which is a very poorly cobbled together piece), Jurowski chose instead to present us with virtually every orchestral interlude in the opera, which amounts to almost 40 minutes of “bleeding chunks”.

Vladimir Jurowski conducting the LPO © Richard Cannon
Vladimir Jurowski conducting the LPO
© Richard Cannon

The magnificent opacity and density of the opening chords of the opera were slightly disappointingly played here, but things soon picked up, with the demented sweep of the “flight to earth” thrillingly dispatched, and then finely on to the noble simplicity of Barak’s strains later in Act I. This music is absolutely ideally placed to Jurowski’s strengths: his precision and ability to inspire playing of the greatest delicacy, pointing, accuracy and warmth is exactly what’s called for in this score, and the LPO responded magnificently in delineating the staggering complexities and numerous beauties of this score. The massive climaxes, writhing, boiling walls of orchestral texture, were delivered with deafening impact, eliciting more than one smile at the composer’s skill and frank audaciousness. Structurally, of course, the music made little sense, with huge contrasts in mood occurring a little too often for comfort, though long-range structure is not one of Strauss’ noted strengths, and as presented here, the music impressed as a series of studies in orchestral colour.

Zemlinsky’s A Florentine Tragedy comprised the second half of the concert. Composed in 1917, this deeply autobiographical one act opera is the work of a man drunk on Strauss’ Salome of a decade earlier, but it feels like a second brew of its obvious model and suffers in every way in comparison to its predecessors (Der Rosenkavalier is freely borrowed from as well, first in the prelude, and then whenever sweetness or lighter strains are called for). This is not just a case of unfairly comparing two different works and complaining that one is not the other one – the parallels are so flagrant and numerous that comparison is unavoidable and surely even perhaps intentional. Musically, points of similarity are too numerous to mention: it is the very fabric of the work that is derived from his models. Additionally, many passages from the frothy libretto might have been lifted directly from Salome, and indeed both are translations of Oscar Wilde plays, though A Florentine Tragedy lacks Salome’s sickening thrust whilst retaining its ludicrously purple prose. It was precisely this aspect of Wilde’s “serious” writing that was a gift for Strauss, who is able to render every gem and sequin, every gust and shudder in notes with effortless virtuosity. Zemlinsky tries to match Strauss effect for effect and does a very respectable job, but where he succeeds best is where he is most brazen and wholesale in his stealing.

Where Zemlinsky differs is in the way he maintains the sickly aura of the piece by consistently subverting and undermining the tonality, sweeping forward in endless gushes of lurid orchestral splurge that fail ever to cohere into a concrete sense of key, whereas Strauss is always more rooted in a tonality, however chromatic things get. But Zemlinsky doesn’t have Strauss’ range or precision, and the lack of real aural contrast (harmonic, timbral, textural) and the relentless muddying fullness of the orchestration (not helped by the awful acoustics of the Royal Festival Hall) makes bland what is, moment to moment, music of very high intensity and dazzle. As a result of this he cannot build tension like Strauss, and so, in a piece where dramatic events are hardly forthcoming, the hour creeps by and we leave feeling dazed but unmoved.

The lion’s share of the vocal writing goes to the character Simone, the jealous husband, and Albert Dohmen supplied a very impressive and sensitive reading of the part, with wide-ranging timbral and textual nuance, though with a steadfast refusal to indulge in any sort of semi-staging which might have made the emotional content of certain passages slightly clearer. Heike Wessels fundamentally has a richly coloured and quite beautiful large mezzo voice, and she made the most of her smallish role. A little too often the voice is squeezed and vibratoless at the beginning of a phrase, as if she’s struggling to control her vocal chords, but she has a compelling intensity and brought the characte’s sultry moodiness to life. Sergei Skorokhodov is due to sing Bacchus in Glyndebourne’s upcoming Ariadne auf Naxos, and he showed all the hallmarks of that role – very steady vocal production, but with very little emotive power or depth of characterisation. In the cavern of the Royal Festival Hall, he found it difficult to ride the orchestra, but even Jurowski’s love for detail and colour couldn’t make Zemlinsky’s complex sonorities resonate effectively in there. All concerned were obviously quite committed to the piece, but overall the performance lacked sufficient momentum or contrast in moods or to make this opera really live.