“I don’t know one composer after Wagner who could satisfy the demands of the theatre with better musical substance than he.” Thus Arnold Schoenberg expressed himself on the operas of his brother-in-law, Alexander von Zemlinsky. Even if he didn’t agree with it, Schoenberg respected Zemlinsky’s decision not to break with tonality, which many now regard as a badge of distinction on Zemlinsky’s part. Recently, the Deutsche Oper Berlin staged his psychologically murky opera Der Traumgörge, but his operas have been slower to take hold in America. Only now, at the Bard SummerScape festival, have his one-act operas Eine florentinische Tragödie and Der Zwerg – each based on a work by Oscar Wilde and arguably his best operas – been paired in a double bill.

Scored for large orchestra, both are rich in Strauss-like visceral thrills. And the Bard performances, intelligently staged by Olivier Tambosi and cogently conducted by Leon Botstein, lent substance to Schoenberg’s extravagant claim. But what strange works these are, the result both of Wilde’s fixation with the macabre and of parallels to Zemlinsky’s life. Irrespective of matters of quality, these are not pieces you’d want to encounter every day. In Eine florentinische Tragödie, the merchant Simone rightly suspects his wife, Bianca, of carrying on with the young prince Guido and, after an hour of musical turbulence, strangles him. Shockingly, the murder at once creates new bonds between Simone and Bianca, who previously thought her husband a coward. According to Zemlinsky, the marriage could be saved only by a catastrophic act, but most see the ending as a perverse twist following a gruesome act of violence.

The most frightening moment of the staging, however, comes at the beginning, when Simone surprises the lovers, his figure magnified to giant size by virtue of the box-like structure within which McDermott & McGough’s sets depict a modern, all-white room. Tambosi leaves little room for ambiguity: Bianca quickly wraps herself in a sheet, and Guido is caught sans trousers. Although the lovers have a central duet, Simone does most of the talking, his words heavy with sarcasm. James Johnson delivered them in a forceful, often coldly calculating baritone, to which Bryan Hymel responded in a burly tenor. In the face-off between the men, Bianca is a secondary figure, but Deanne Meek’s vibrant mezzo left one wanting more.

Der Zwerg is the better opera but even more unsettling. A Spanish Infanta is the recipient of birthday gifts, among them a dwarf who, while surprisingly cultivated, has never seen himself in a mirror. Following repartee with the Infanta, he believes she loves him, but later finds a mirror and to his horror discovers his ugliness. There is a biographical parallel, for Zemlinsky was in love with Alma Schindler, who chose Mahler instead and described Zemlinsky in her memoirs as a “horrible dwarf”. Starting with an atmospheric scene for the princess and her entourage, the opera has a better dramatic shape as it builds towards its grim conclusion and, accordingly, more musical and dramatic variety, than does Eine florentinische Tragödie, which is essentially an extended harangue.

The dazzling set depicts a two-tiered hall where the princess’s gifts are assembled, with buckets of pink carnations all over the floor. The soprano Sarah Jane McMahon, in fine voice, played the Infanta as one genuinely intrigued by the dwarf, even if she regards him as only a plaything. Jeffrey Dowd gave a deeply affecting performance as the dwarf, bringing the heft of a countertenor to the character’s expressions of despair. Botstein, leading the American Symphony Orchestra in both operas, impressed especially in the way he brought out the exotic orchestral colours of Der Zwerg.

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