The only SF Symphony “Romantic Visions” concert that I managed to hear back in June was Zemlinsky’s Florentine Tragedy, prefaced by three short pieces also based on works by Oscar Wilde. My heart sank when I noticed the microphone on the podium; sure enough, we were not allowed to hear any music until the conductor (James Conlon) had talked at us. There’s a lecture beforehand, and copious informative essays in the program book, and plenty of sources for CDs in case we wanted to hear the works beforehand; what’s with the talks? If you haven’t prepped by then, either you don’t really care or you prefer to hear the work without annotation. I sometimes like to go in blank, because it’s very seldom you can do that in an opera house or symphony hall. The talks to a captive audience seem like force-feeding and strike me as unsuited to our cavernous halls (if you need to use a microphone, maybe you shouldn’t be talking). The tone is usually sort of cutesy and jocular in a way that is invariably inappropriate for the music that follows. (Michael Tilson Thomas did this before he played some Morton Feldman this year and the sudden switch from amusing anecdotes in Feldman’s Brooklyn tones to his refined, very quiet music was just too abrupt and not an effect Feldman would have wanted, I think.) If the purpose is to make audiences comfortable, then it’s backfiring on me, since I just get annoyed and restless. I don’t want audiences to be comfortable. I want them to shut up and listen. We’re already there. You’ve won. Just sing and play!
Conlon’s remarks chiefly were about the composers and Oscar Wilde and the “surprise ending” of A Florentine Tragedy (which he didn’t spell out, but if you keep specifying that there’s a surprise, does it remain a surprise when it arrives?). In fact, the ending is not really a surprise unless you never step outside those operas in which the baritone never gets the girl despite his deep voice and fabulous hair. You could probably see it coming if you’ve ever seen any film noir, or any of those Bette Davis movies in which she slaps the guy and he slaps her back and they glare at each other for a moment and then start kissing passionately and there’s a quick cut to the smoldering logs in the fireplace leaping into flame and Max Steiner climaxes all over the soundtrack. And of course there is a direct link between the artists who composed and performed this sort of music and the refugees from fascism who made film noir in Hollywood.
I enjoyed the three dances very much, though only the most familiar, the Dance of the Seven Veils from Strauss’s Salome, was long enough to really make an effect. The pieces from Schreker’s Birthday of the Infanta and Zemlinsky’s the Dwarf were short but pleasing. A Florentine Tragedy was very well done, though the tenor Kim Begley is not the right age or look for a staged performance.
What A Florentine Tragedy really made me think of, and this resemblance was not mentioned in program or talk, was a sort of perverse take on the first act of Die Walkure: you have a troubled husband and wife, and an attractive intruder, and murder in the air, only this time the marriage closes like a lake over the corpse of the outsider. (Sorry, maybe I should have put in a spoiler alert. I’m not as considerate as Conlon.) It seemed fitting with the period that Wagner would be very much on the composer’s and librettist’s minds. It reminded me of a Walkure I saw in which Hunding was a massive Finnish dude built like an inverted triangle (if his sword didn’t cut you his cheekbones would) and Siegmund was a somewhat tubby and earnest tenor; I thought at the time that if the outcome hadn’t been pre-ordained (by Wagner if not Wotan) Sieglinde might be better off where she was.