Concert Review: ASO Revives ‘Mona Lisa,’ Inspired by Leonardo’s Muse

The New York Times

Review: American Symphony Orchestra Revives ‘Mona Lisa,’ Inspired by Leonardo’s Muse

By Vivien Schweitzer, February 22, 2015

The soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon. Credit Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

Leon Botstein, conducting the American Symphony Orchestra. Credit Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

The bass baritone Michael Anthony McGee. Credit Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa has inspired books, imitations, satirical spinoffs, songs and staged works — among them Max von Schillings’s opera “Mona Lisa.” It received over 1,200 performances in the decade after its 1915 composition, including a production at the Metropolitan Opera.

But after Von Schillings’s death in 1933 the opera mostly disappeared from the repertory. On Friday evening at Carnegie Hall, the American Symphony Orchestra and Leon Botstein did their part to rescue it from obscurity.

Mr. Botstein is a champion of neglected repertory, recently staging worthy operatic gems by composers including Zemlinsky. Von Schillings, a conductor, head of the State Opera in Berlin and a Nazi sympathizer who aided in the dismissal of Jewish artists like Schoenberg and Franz Schreker from academic posts, produced a small catalog of symphonic, concerto and operatic works, of which “Mona Lisa” was the most successful.

The opera blends Wagnerian trademarks like leitmotifs with elements of verismo. The score, which opens with a sumptuous prologue, is often beautiful, its swirling, richly textured climaxes redolent of Strauss.

Set to a libretto by the Austrian poet and actress Beatrice von Dovsky, the opera presents in its opening scene an older man and his young wife on a visit to Florence, where a monk relays the tale of the 15th-century jewel merchant Francesco del Giocondo and his wife, Fiordalisa Gherardini, the famous subject of da Vinci’s painting. The action soon shifts back to the 15th century — where a verismo-esque tale of jealousy, romance and revenge unfolds. The opera concludes with the contemporary couple, still listening to the monk’s tale.

The Bard Festival Chorale sang elegantly in the passionate chorus scenes, including the carnival opening Act I. Mr. Botstein and the ensemble illuminated Von Schillings’s considerable skill as an orchestrator, highlighting the colorful nuances and effective shifts of mood and tension. Dramatically, the opera feels static in several scenes, but there are plenty of arresting moments, like the love duet between the title character and Giovanni de Salviati, her admirer, rendered by the tenor Paul McNamara. He also imbued the Lay Brother’s opening monologue with dramatic subtlety.

The singers in the smaller roles proved solid, including the soprano Lucy Fitz Gibbon as Dianora, Robert Chafin as Arrigo Oldofredi, Justin Hopkins as Pietro Tumoni and Ilana Davidson as Mona Ginevra.

It’s an opera worthy of staging, although this performance would have been far more effective with a stronger soprano: Petra Maria Schnitzer sometimes failed to project, and when she did sounded uninvolved and dispassionate. The bass baritone Michael Anthony McGee offered a strong portrayal of Francesco del Giocondo, Mona Lisa’s jealous husband, determined to discover the secret behind his somber wife’s enigmatic smile.

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