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American Symphony Revives Von Schillings’ “Mona Lisa”

Posted on: February 20th, 2015 by Art Leonard No Comments

I haven’t been blogging concerts and theater this season… too overwhelmed with legal developments and work.  But having just attended the American Symphony Orchestra’s presentation of Max Von Schillings’ opera “Mona Lisa” at Carnegie Hall, I couldn’t resist offering a few observations.

First, to thank Leon Botstein, the ASO, the singers and chorus for the enormous effort that goes into putting on these revivals of forgotten music.  They usually have to go to significant lengths to track down scores and parts, and everybody involved has to spend time learning music that nobody has performed and that they are unlikely to be called upon to perform again.  This is especially true of the singers.  While they don’t memorize their parts, as they would have to do for a staged production, it still is a tremendous effort to get beyond sight reading, putting in significant time to learn a part that it is unlikely one will ever sing again.

I emphasize the unlikeliness of living off this capital investment because accomplished as this opera is, it isn’t likely to hold the stage.  There are too many problems with it.  The plot is a silly soap opera, and the piece is structurally unbalanced to a pronounced degree.  The first act is about twice as long as the second, and this disproportion is even more pronounced when you look at the libretto: 42 pages of text, of which all but the last 9 pages come before the intermission.  (And a word to the ASO and Carnegie Hall – when so much has been invested in producing a libretto booklet and distributing it to everybody, why do you dim the lights during the performance, making it eye-straining to follow along?  What is the sense in this???  It is particularly useful to be able to follow text for a virtually unknown work.  I found the effort and eyestrain exhausting and gave up mid-way through the first act.  Better luck with the second, which may be why I enjoyed it a bit more.)  The music, while containing moments of great beauty and inventive orchestration, lacks truly memorable thematic material.  The first act just goes on for too long, and the fine singers are taxed with technically difficult extended solos that have little real dramatic pay-off.

All that said, it is fantastic that the ASO makes the effort to produce these concerts. They are a window into the past that is so valuable for music lovers, because it gives us a context within which to understand the masterworks contemporary with it and to appreciate them all the more.  This piece was composed in 1913-15 and premiered in 1915.  Thus it is contemporary with Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, and postdates by just a few years Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and 9th Symphony.  It falls somewhere between the works of these composers – not nearly as dissonant and rhythmically inventive as the Stravinsky, but perhaps a further step in the line of Mahler, albeit without Mahler’s flare for inventing and developing memorable themes.  Listening to Schillings, one understands the background against which Mahler and Stravinsky was composing, and why their works survive to be part of our standard repertory.

The performance seemed more than adequate to communicate what is interesting about the work.  The lead singers – Petra Maria Schnitzer, Michael Anthony McGee, and Paul McNamara – each provided very fine, alert, involved singing, the orchestra — while it could have used a bigger string section to balance the big wind complement (I counted 7 horns on stage) — seemed well-rehearsed and confident, Botstein’s direction was very effective, and the supporting roles and choral interventions, including some soloists from the Bard Festival Chorale, was fine (if the chorus was underused by the composer).  Hat tip to James Bagwell for preparation of the chorus, which was sterling when called upon.

Although the work itself is not particularly memorable, certainly the evening was…