A diptych in concert version was the final show of the Summer Festival “The Golden Stage" at the Teatro di San Carlo. It was a double bill of two one-act plays: Der Zwerg (The Dwarf) by Alexander von Zemlinsky, which premiered at the Teatro di San Carlo, and Il tabarro by Giacomo Puccini. 

Der Zwerg premiered in Cologne in 1922 under the baton of Otto Klemperer. The libretto by Georg Klaren was adapted from The Birthday of the Infanta by Oscar Wilde: there is plenty of references to psychoanalysis and to central European cultural themes of the early 20th century – loss of reassuring awareness, a destiny of bitter loneliness – within a dreamy-visionary music.

<i>Der Zwerg</i> © Francesco Squeglia | Teatro di San Carlo
Der Zwerg
© Francesco Squeglia | Teatro di San Carlo

The story is set in 17th-century Spain. For the birthday of the Infanta, Donna Clara, a dwarf is sent as a gift by a Turkish sultan. Unaware of his physical deformity, the dwarf falls in love with the Infanta and sings a love song, pretending to be a brave knight. The Infanta, playing cruelly with him, gives him a white rose, but when he sees himself reflected for the first time in a mirror, he is seized by great anguish. He begs a kiss from Donna Clara, who rejects him, calling him a monster. With a broken heart, the dwarf dies, cradling the rose in his hands.

The opera has a strong expressionist quality, marked by frequent, abrupt changes of mood and a lack of discernible melodies, even though some lyrical interludes and leitmotifs are recognizable. One is tempted to find influences from Puccini and Richard Strauss. Its orchestration includes mandolin, harps and raucous trumpets to balance the swooning strings.

The singing cast assembled by the Teatro San Carlo was first rate. Nicola Beller Carbone’s glimmering soprano was convincing as the manipulative, cruel princess. Scott MacAllister’s hard-voiced tenor as the dwarf, sacrificed vocal beauty to dramatic credibility. His tenor sometimes sounded feeble and strained in the upper range, but this didn’t diminish his dramatically moving performance. The other singers, soprano Majella Cullagh and baritone Thomas Gazheli, were impressive,the latter especially showing fine diction and a virile baritone.

On the podium, Maurizio Agostini, replacing the previously announced Stefan Anton Reck, led a lively, detailed performance of Zemlinsky’s richly orchestrated, tense score. The San Carlo Orchestra was really impressive as it created the right compelling atmosphere.

The following one-act opera was Puccini's Il tabarro, staged for the first time at the Metropolitan in New York in 1918 combined with two other one-act works, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi (known collectively as Il trittico). 

<i>Il tabarro</i> © Francesco Squeglia | Teatro di San Carlo
Il tabarro
© Francesco Squeglia | Teatro di San Carlo

Il tabarro (The cloak) is to a libretto by Giuseppe Adami from The houppelande by Didier Gold. The opera is considered a tribute to musical realism and is characterized by its extreme density and dramatic composition. The action is set in the slums of Paris, in a dismal atmosphere: in the opening, the orchestra’s undulating waves remind us that we are on the banks of the Seine. The score is wrought around pentatonic chords, after Debussy’s mode. The musical effect is one of desolate grief, which again (as in Der Zwerg) does not arise from melody but from the atmosphere the music creates.

The principals all sang well. Baritone Rodolfo Giugliani was Michele, a tough and tyrant husband whose heart grieves with jealousy. Amarilli Nizza sang Giorgetta, making us feel every harsh pain and twist of the drama. Her soprano was deep, believable and vocally vigorous. Tenor Antonello Palombi was fascinating, as he projected top notes wonderfully and with great musicality as Giorgetta's secret lover, Luigi. Here again, the conductor and orchestra were terrific in tackling the score with austere intensity.