Zemlinsky/Puccini double bill at the COC

Posted on May 4, 2012

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A Florentine Tragedy (1917) by Alexander Zemlinsky based on the play by Oscar Wilde / Gianni Schicchi (1918) by Giacomo Puccini, libretto by Giovacchino Forzano based on an episode from Dante’s Inferno. Canadian Opera Company original production 2012. Conductor Sir Andrew Davis, director Catherine Malfitano.Simone / Gianni Schicchi Alan Held, Bianca / Nella Gun-Brit Barkmin, Lauretta Simone Osborne, full cast, creative & performance dates HERE.

No other way about it: double bill is excellent. And here’s why.

It’s a production for grown-ups. There’s none of the escapism and nostalgia Merchant Ivory nonsense. Though both pieces originally take place in the Renaissance, Malfitano has moved the first opera to the time of its creation and the second one to the present. The set is not meant to provoke oohs and ahs, and apart from the final sunny projection of the panorama of the city — which comes out to remind you that that’s precisely the kind of  thing we’ve been avoiding so far – has no pretty views of any kind.

Furthermore, it’s a production for grown-ups of our time. Who is paying the bills, where is the money coming from, whose property we’re on, and how do these relationships of ownership and dependence affect friendship, love and family ties – to make any kind of art today, anything at all, without the awareness of questions like these would be utter blindness. This production puts them centre-stage.

The Oscar Wilde piece is brutal, but Malfitano and Davis softened the unease somewhat with the silent film aesthetic and by heightening the melodramatic peaks in the music. The story of marital triangle starts conventionally enough, with the husband arriving home to find the wife in somebody else’s embrace. But that somebody is a prominent noble, and the merchant husband belongs to the bourgeoisie which, although on the rise in economic power, still lags in prestige. (Remember it’s the Renaissance in the original text; or if you look at the staging, a semi-feudal country in the 1910s like Germany, Italy or any of the East European ones. It could also be the struggle between the haute and the moyenne bourgeoisie; to keep in mind is that we have a man and a more powerful man; you can fill in the rest.) Husband is aware that he is not to alienate the visitor, and does everything he can to avoid noticing the cuckolding happening before his eyes. He talks business. He tries to network. May I show you my wares?, he says more than once. He brings out beautiful pieces of fabric to impress the guest. His wife was never particularly beautiful anyway, he asserts.

He’s not very brave, the wife in turn tells the lover. He has no qualities. The power balance is tipped almost fully to the side of the noble who, nobly, stands up for his wants. It’s likely that both Wilde and Malfitano know of Hegel’s parable of the master and the slave, and we are witnessing a dramatization of something very close to that. He who won’t risk his life for his freedom, but prefers to live,  even if in subjugation, is a slave. A noble heart is that which risks everything for the one thing that matters. But the situation gradually changes on stage. A proper give-and-take begins as the husband’s anger awakens. He is righteously yelling that he will suffer many things but never the theft of his own property (which includes the wife). The husband is now actively fighting, and the noble losing courage. The swords are drawn, a fight ensues which the noble loses, rather surprised at the bourgeois pushback. As the prince dies, the music swells as the husband and the wife see each other for the first time again. You are now very beautiful, sings the husband. You are very brave, sings the wife. The family unit closes upon itself.

What did we just witness? The recap of the bourgeois revolutions to come? A Whiggish or Marxist take on the class about to take over the theatre of history? An illustration of the big Industrial Age shut-in of the female sex to the house and domesticity? (there’s a moment when the husband asks the wife to show the guest how she spins; but there is no spinning and no household economics in the era that Malfitano chose, and the wife just aimlessly wanders around mirrors fixing make-up while the really productive labour takes place outside the home) A psychoanalytical account of how cruelty to outsiders renews the bonds of a marriage? All of the above, and more?

I could go on and on about the first half. But the second half is also there, the comical variations on essentially the same theme.  Alan Held plays the bourgeois again, this time the newcomer whose cunning and calculation wins over the fumbling incompetence of the old Florentine money. There is even an aria in praise of the arriviste, sung by Schicchi’s future son-in-law from the top of the pile of household possessions, as the process of class renewal is acknowledged and accepted. Although the extended family gets most of the possessions it wanted, the house is left to the two lovebirds, a sort of middle-class editions of the Capuleti & the Montecchi with whom at stake is not honour or tribe pride but real estate.

Everything works tickety-boo in all corners of this production. The ensemble singing and acting in Gianni Schicchi would make Christopher Guest envious. Alan Held is flawless in both roles, and other singers are not far behind. The COC orchestra was its usual resplendent self. The music by Zemlinsky in Davis’s rendition is a peculiar beast which you wouldn’t mind meeting again in a dark alley.

You will keep thinking about this double bill long after you left the opera.

Top photo: Gun-Brit Barkmin as Bianca, Michael Koenig as Guido Bardi and Alan Held as Simone (background). Below: Gun-Brit Barkmin as Bianca, Michael Koenig as Guido Bardi. Bottom photo: a scene from Gianni Schicchi. Photos by Michael Cooper.