Italian premiere of Korngold’s Violanta

Erich Korngold’s one-act opera Violanta was written when the composer was only seventeen and, on a first encounter with it, it would seem in one respect that his youth shows. The storyline has the heroine, who has been busy plotting the death of the seducer of her sister, experiencing a sudden volte face by falling passionately in love with him and then sacrificing her own life to save his. Was this highly implausible but also very romantic twist particularly appealing to the young man? Perhaps, but what emerged in the work’s first Italian performance at Turin’s Teatro Regio was a shift of emphasis from a predictable fin-de siècle melodrama to a modern psychological exploration of the mysteries of desire. Such a perspective gained strength from the setting, Venice at carnival time, when identity and emotions could be concealed behind masks and eccentric costumes. The production and designs of Pier Luigi Pizzi were consistent with this in framing the drama, though less successful in dealing with the detail of the piece, the director seemingly leaving the soloists too much to their own devices. In other words, there was a deficit of what the Germans call Personenregie.

This was not a disadvantage as far as Annemarie Kremer in the title role was concerned. The anguish of ambiguity in her feelings was fully realised in her facial and bodily movements while the eventual conviction of emotional commitment was expressed through the opulent outpourings of her soprano; a performance of truly Wagnerian intensity. Norman Reinhardt, as her intended victim and unexpected lover, arrived in a bizarre outfit; more importantly he was deprived of individual human attributes, the conception being that he was a kind of deus ex machina, an instrument designed to provoke, and thus provide an insight on, female desire. He has an attractive tenor voice, though of insufficient weight (Michael König was originally announced for the role). Michael Kupfer-Radecky with his robust baritone was effective as Violanta’s husband, first indecisive then, after his vengeful emotions have been aroused, bemused by her infidelity. Peter Sonn sang mellifluously as the painter Giovanni Braca but could not distance himself from an absurd costume.

Veteran conductor Pinchas Steinberg contributed a full-blooded orchestral accompaniment, relishing Korngold’s lush, late romantic idiom, as also the occasional jagged rhythms and contorted harmonies.