The Teatro Regio conjured an atmosphere of deception and depravity with a pairing of two one act operas set in a time and place characterized by the pervasiveness of Machiavellian intrigue – that of 16th century Florence. Zemlinsky's Eine Florentinische Tragödie and Puccini's Gianni Schicchi formed a diptych of dramatic contrasts, both of which were realized with a cohesive blend of sharp sets, exemplary playing and solid singing. The works were updated to the fin de siècle era, where writers like Baudelaire suggested that morality had degenerated and decayed, and Vittorio Borrelli's production had the audience constantly re-evaluating not only what is real and artifice, but what could be deemed virtue and vice.

Mark S Doss (Simone), Zoran Todorovich (Guido Bardi) and Ángeles Blancas Gulín (Bianca) © Ramella & Giannese | Teatro Regio
Mark S Doss (Simone), Zoran Todorovich (Guido Bardi) and Ángeles Blancas Gulín (Bianca)
© Ramella & Giannese | Teatro Regio

Eine Florentinische Tragödie is an adaptation of an unfinished play by Oscar Wilde in which Simone, a wealthy merchant, lures his wife's unsuspecting lover to his death before, in a bizarre twist, the murder reawakens Bianca's desire for her husband. The curtains opened to a venereal prelude in the style of Richard Strauss to reveal a dark room bathed in a clinical light that felt like a dark Swedish drama. Slender shutters were flanked by towering mahogany bookshelves and, below, Bianca reclined seductively, clad in golden silk gown and kissing her lover Guido to a climax in Zemlinsky's free-flowing score.

Simone watches all of this unfold with his back turned to the audience, and is thus painfully aware of Bianca's infidelity from the start. This is a detail that differs from many productions, and it means that deception was at work as soon as Simone began to shower the prince in compliments and to tempt him with exquisite gifts.

Whilst Simone's motives were explicit throughout, those of the lovers were hard to pin down. They caress and fawn under Simone's nose, though on rare occasions an ill-defined tenderness is detectable in Bianca's dealings with her husband. But in one of her embraces with Guido, a full moon glides into view behind the shutters, bringing with it the notions of purity and artesian chastity. We catch ourselves wondering whether the lovers' bond is good and true and whether Simone is the flawed character instead. That Guido is in peril, though, is always clear and when Simone speaks to him of his inner turmoil the moon turns a deep red.

Zoran Todorovich (Guido Bardi) and Ángeles Blancas Gulín (Bianca) © Ramella & Giannese | Teatro Regio
Zoran Todorovich (Guido Bardi) and Ángeles Blancas Gulín (Bianca)
© Ramella & Giannese | Teatro Regio

The final portion of the production was wrought with drama and, ultimately, surprises. Simone left the room and the lovers sang an erotic duet, Guido kissing Bianca's sprawling legs as she lay on a table, while Zemlinsky's lush score surged in silvery knots and Debussian splashes. Simone trudged into view behind the shutters, creating a disconcerting juxtaposition of images, and the ensuing sword fight led to Guido's murder, to screams from Bianca, though there was a suspicion that she was on her husband's side. In a feature in neither score nor play, Simone then strangled Bianca who hung limply from his hands in the glare of a broadening moon. This clever detail made sense of Wilde's improbable ending whilst ensuring that the piece remained tragic in relation to the Puccini. Mark S. Doss, in the role of Simone, had a steely, grounded voice that turned beautifully at the top, while Zoran Todorovich's Guido was bright and confident. Ángeles Blancas Gulín as Bianca often lacked core in the middle of her range, though her strong acting made her overall performance an excellent one. 

Gianni Schicchi provided relief after the turbulence of the first half, and this interpretation was full of the well-delivered buffoonery that characterizes the Commedia dell'arte tradition in which the work has its roots. At the heart of the action lies a rabble of ludicrous stereotypes that endeavour to alter the will of a recently deceased relative, Buoso Donati, who has left them short-changed. We were in stitches as soon as the curtain rose to reveal a hive of activity as the family fussed over the body of Buoso, gesticulated with stock Italian hand movements and, on noticing the presence of the audience, formed a perfect line and issued exaggerated sobs in the direction of the spectators. Silvia Beltrami's Zita was the leader of the pack and a considerable break in her over-egged voice contributed to the overall absurdity of a character played with zany unpredictability.

Francesco Meli (Rinuccio), Serena Gamberoni (Lauretta) and Alessandro Corbelli (Gianni Schicchi) © Ramella & Giannese | Teatro Regio
Francesco Meli (Rinuccio), Serena Gamberoni (Lauretta) and Alessandro Corbelli (Gianni Schicchi)
© Ramella & Giannese | Teatro Regio

The success or failure of this piece hinges on the performances of protagonists who, this evening, were in fine form. Serena Gamberoni was light yet well-rounded in Lauretta's aria “O mio babbino caro” and tenor Francesco Meli, though he squeezed slightly at the top, displayed breadth and openness in Rinuccio's “Firenze è come un albero fiorito”. But the evening went to arch-deceiver Gianni Schicchi whose impersonations of Buoso allow him to dictate a favourable rewriting of the will. Alessandro Corbelli had the right rusticity of voice to portray this wily man from the country, and his endlessly engaging manner brought life and shape to an entire performance where the energy dropped only once or twice. All was delivered atop a lucid texture from Stefan-Anton Reck's orchestra where every musical joke was audible.

****1