Cher Public

Lips together, teeth apart

The enigmatic half-smile that gives its name to Leonardo’s “La Gioconda” or Mona Lisa, his most famous painting, has been fancifully credited to many emotions. Is the lady daydreaming or flirting or pondering one of the painter’s anatomical diagrams? It has recently been suggested that she is Leonardo himself in drag, savoring a joke at our expense. Mr. Peabody, that Leonardo among canines, claimed she was suffering from toothache, and (as usual) he and his Wayback machine saved the day—it is true that until the advent of scientific dentistry, portraits were never painted with parted lips.  

The suggestion that La Gioconda’s smirk is the result of having vengefully done away with her husband (a perfect time to call the painter for a session, eh?) is typical of the macabre tales of the Renaissance beloved of many opera composers in many genres, all the way up to Ginastera’s Bomarzo. Such an opera was Max von Schillings’ Mona Lisa of 1915, revived in concert last Friday at Carnegie Hall by Leon Botstein and his American Symphony Orchestra. Whatever his skills as a maestro—and he does seem more an intellectual than a musician at times—Botstein’s taste for exploring little-known corners of the repertory, be they symphonic, operatic, pious or simply sonic, holds a shining light in a landscape of repetition. He is always worth checking out; he discovers things you never suspected; and from his upstate podium at Bard, can help you make connections across centuries of well-harvested repertory.

With its amorous triangle, enormous orchestra and scenic views of Florence, including an appearance by the incendiary preacher Savonarola, regrettably non-singing (what an aria that would have been! Like Imogene Coca crying, “Repent!”), Mona Lisa was a palpable hit in 1915 and for a quarter century thereafter. The opera, which cannot have been inexpensive to stage, racked up well over a thousand performances, mostly in Germany but nine of them at the Metropolitan. Barbara Kemp, making her Met debut, was admired by one reviewer for fainting and rolling down the stairs, “an effect fully the equal of anything Jeritza has done in this line” (to say nothing of Chaliapin), but it is the illustrious Michael Bohnen, making his debut as her unloved husband whom one would like to have heard. He had a major career. Kemp, however, married the composer and gave up the stage.

Schillings appears to have been an unpleasant fellow, an academic martinet and anti-democrat who rejoiced in the (electoral) triumph of the Nazis and gleefully did their bidding when they came to power. Happily for him, he died in 1933. On the basis of this score, he was a skilled organizer of enormous forces and an inventive deviser of theatrical effects—offstage serenades, prayers, rollicking street processions. He is not, however, memorably inventive when the central characters need to involve us in their lives, their loves, their crimes. He does not have Strauss’s melodic gift and ability to keep us involved in lengthy effusions, or the commanding presence of Schreker’s melodies or at least the first act of Pfitzner’s Palestrina.

If you had told me this was a score by Korngold, I would have had no trouble believing you—the harmonic style is very similar, and Korngold, too, could juggle huge forces and fill in a story’s margins with charming interludes. But there is more musical substance to the passion (albeit imaginary) of Die Tote Stadt than there is in the central conflict of Mona Lisa. I am told the “pearl duet” of Lisa and Francesco is effective in a recording by Inge Borkh and Alexander Welitsch. A 1953 pirate of the opera from Berlin with Borkh also exists, but I do not kno it. Certainly the ASO performance was undercast in the two most important roles.

Petra Maria Schnitzer, who has sung Elisabeth at the Met, seemed underpowered at the music’s climaxes and unvarying in her mad monologues. The coolness that Mona Lisa’s husband, Francesco, complains of was perfectly evident, but the passion aroused by her lover, Giovanni, did not surge through. Is this due to Schnitzer’s lack of enthusiasm or the composer’s reluctance to push his leading ladies to the pinnacle and keep them there, in the manner of Richard Strauss?

Francesco, the jealous husband, is the opera’s most interesting character: We see his absorption in his work (he deals in rare pearls), his brooding on his wife’s frigidity, his gathering understanding of her treachery, the blaze of rage that impels him to murder his rival, his insane gloating (which will drive his wife to her mad revenge)—in short, he develops, slowly reveals aspects of a soul’s explosion. This is the meat of the opera, and Schillings has done very well by it, isolating the solitary soul against a frivolous world and making his themes more sinister by degrees of harmony and orchestration.

But the role calls for a dark, demonic bass-baritone of power and personality—he’s all about that bass. I worried. Michael Anthony McGee sang it prettily and did a fine job portraying the fellow’s progressive collapse, but his voice is a light baritone with no depths to it, no vocal authority. His manias did not terrify, his threats were without audible venom.

Paul McNamara, who sings Parsifal and Tannhäuser in Germany, possesses a grainy tenor that rose superbly to the world-well-lost intensity of both Mona Lisa’s lover, Giovanni, and the puzzled, moralizing friar of the epilogue. His instincts were right, and his line yearning when yearning was called for, but the story does not allow him much time to make these points.

Among a sizable crowd of small roles, Robert Chafin sang an offstage leggiero serenade, giving Schillings the opportunity to insert a timely mandolin in the enormous orchestral sound; John Easterlin vivid in one of his witty comprimario turns; Ilana Davidson winning as the local courtesan, a must at Mona Lisa’s parties; and Lucy Fitz Gibbon projected the naiveté of Mona Lisa’s childish stepdaughter with a bell-like purity of tone.

The Bard Festival Chorale, directed by James Bagwell, provided adequate processional and character background, but the ASO itself was the real star, with sumptuous textures that did not obscure individual contributions, including a solo heckelphone, sort of a bass oboe, as well as the more characteristic instruments of Renaissance serenade, which could only be heard when the rest of the band was quiet. (But Schillings was expert at creating such moments.)

The score is professional and attractive, far more theatrical than, say, the operas of Siegfried Wagner in this period, and lacking Palestrina’s philosophical befuddle. The two hours or so of music hurtled by at a pace worthy of the onset of the young twentieth century in all its gaudy addiction to speed. But repeated exposures could only be justified with more vital leading singers.

  • Will

    Amazon lists three recordings, one with no real information and a blurry picture of the cover that yields no info on the cast or conductor. Robert Heger conducts a recording with Inge Borkh, Hans Beirer and Mathieu Ahlersmeyer; Christof Prick (who was billed as Perick for understandable reasons in the U.S.) conducts a Gala recording with Sylvia Anderson, Hans Kiemer and Werner Gotz.

  • pasavant

    Your English is improving!

  • Camille

    Thanks, JoYo.

    Pity the Welitsch/Borkh version of the duet is not on YouTube as it is better than the one Which I found and posted on a previous thread. Glad to hear you found more to be grateful for than did I. The tenor playing Arrigo, a Mr Chafin, did the best singing as far as I was concerned.

  • manou

    Those of you who are awake can listen to Jonas in one minute

    It will be archived for the others.

    • Feldmarschallin

      Speaking of Jonas are there any reports how the rehearsals have been going for the Aida? No reports or interviews in the Italian press?

      • umangialaio

        Enrico Stinchelli, co-host of RaiRadio3 opera show La Barcaccia, reported positive rumours on 16th February on Italian opera forum Operaclick:
        “…da indiscrezioni: coro e orchestra in forma spettacolare,eccezionali performances dei solisti e…si bemolle ” morendo” di Kaufmann…Pappano sugli scudi….in molti parlano di evento epocale”.

        Some discounting is warranted.


        • umangialaio

          Interview mit dem Jonas:

          One wonders as to whether the recording has actually been already done before the live performance in front in front of the audience.


          • Lohengrin

            First the recording, then the concert, that was the planning.

          • Feldmarschallin

            Well I knew that he is singing Aida on stage as well at the BSO with Stoyanova in Sept and Oktober. I wouldn’t be surprised if she decides to sing a few on stage as well despite the protests in May. :) She has the right to change her mind after studying it and knowing that is well within her limits. Just too bad she didn’t decide a bit earlier about singing it on stage otherwise we would be in for another Verdi feast. Stoyanova will be fine.

            • Lohengrin

              Despite the “problems” in London she could be there for Aida. Yes, Stoyanova will be fine, had her as Leonora in Trovatore, but missed AH.

        • Lohengrin

          ..and we will be there!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
          Hopefully they all will be fine on 27. Feb.

          Watched the not so convincing AIDA yesterday from la Scala.

          • Fidelia

            Indeed we will be there, with bells on! For info, Lohengrin & Feld : I’ll be wearing black trousers,a black coat and red scarf with muted black paisley motif. Have eyeglasses with bordeaux frames.

            We’ve been listening to a lovely 1974 recording (with Caballé, Domingo, Cossotto, Cappuccilli, Ghiaurov, directed by Muti). Have been placing bets on what to expect at different points of the upcoming Rome version. See you on Friday!

            • Feldmarschallin

              Fidelia watch out for grey leopards against a red background. Well I am expecting at least Kaufmann do observe those pesky things Verdi wrote in the score like pp. Poor Tebaldi was trying her best and del Monaco just blasted away at forte. I started a bit late in the game so now before I leave Tuesday will only have time for one more either with Arroyo or ATS both live. Let’s hope they all are in great voice. She has never cancelled on him but he has cancelled on her twice. Looking forward to the Amernis who was great in Salzburg as Eboli. And even though Oedipe is no longer with us also to Tézier.

            • Lohengrin

              Nothing red on my outfit, but -if I dont leave it on the journey- I will have something in my hand reminding You on Lohengrin (from La Scala).

            • manou

              “Grey leopards against a red background” makes me think the trip might be worthwhile after all.

              Look out for me too (but not too hard)…

        • Feldmarschallin

          Yes I am hoping for the bemolle morendo as well. Just listening to the first Tebaldi Aida after Callas and Zadek. He of course goes forte. Was reading the score over the last few days and there are quite many top notes for both of them. Everyone always just talks about that one C but she has many of them not to mention b and h as well as does he.

    • Lohengrin

      Was a in many ways interesting and -- as unsual- charming interview.
      Where will it be archived? Best place would be YT.

    • PushedUpMezzo

      The Desert Island Discs was trailed in the Telegraph with a rather lazy article ( “an accomplished Lieder singer as well as a tenor”)

      Kirsty Young sounded more than charmed by her guest. And kudos to him for choosing Muzio and apologising for including one of his own tracks.

      • DellaCasaFan

        “Kirsty Young sounded more than charmed by her guest.”

        Indeed. At some point she said something to the effect that he must be having a lot of female admirers as someone who can sing so beautifully AND fix a dishwasher. A very charming conversation and interesting music choices. I was surprised to hear how he discovered Schiøtz’s disc of Die Schöne Müllerin, probably my favorite recording of this cycle.

        manou-- thank you for letting us know about this interview.

        • Fidelia

          Yes, thanks a lot, Manou.

          • manou

            Di niente.

  • Great review, John. Thanks!