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.