You Can Tell, Just By Looking, She’s Planning A Heist

Petra-Maria Schnitzer (Mona Lisa) and Michael Anthony McGee (Francesco) in a concert version of Max von Schillings' 'Mona Lisa' under Leon Botstein.  (Concert photos by Jito Lee)
Petra-Maria Schnitzer and Michael Anthony McGee perform Max von Schillings’ ‘Mona Lisa’ under Leon Botstein.
(Concert photos by Jito Lee)
By Leslie Kandell

NEW YORK — The American Symphony Orchestra and Bard Festival Chorale outdid themselves in performing unusual repertory at the Feb. 20 concert in Carnegie Hall. Usually it’s a neglected work by a famous composer, but this time the quixotic, brilliant music director (and Bard College president) Leon Botstein uncovered Mona Lisa, an opera by Max von Schillings, a forgotten German composer who led its premiere a century ago.

Schillings' opera provides a back story to the iconic smile.
Schillings’ opera provides a back story to La Gioconda’s iconic smile.

Not that Mona Lisa, which was sung in concert version with German-English word sheets provided to listeners, wasn’t heard of in his time. Botstein wrote in the program notes that in the 15 years following its 1915 premiere in Stuttgart, it received “well over 1,200 performances,” including a run at the Metropolitan Opera, and also in Vienna with Maria Jeritza in the title role. Richard Strauss, who composed in a similar rich, dense style, with slippery harmonies — but better — led it in Vienna and Berlin.  Also much in the opera’s favor was the news value of da Vinci’s painting (on wood), whose theft from the Louvre in 1911 and subsequent recovery in 1913 catapulted it to seven-wonders-of-the-art-world fame.  (A delightful account of the heist is here.)

As head of the Prussian Academy of the Arts, Schillings sympathized with the Nazis and had no problem dismissing the likes of Schreker and Schoenberg from their posts there. Schillings died in 1933, after the Nazis came to power, and, in Botstein’s words, “a revival after 1945 was unthinkable.” Botstein came across a score in Vienna in 1971 while rummaging for something else. He paid 50 cents for it and held it until he could rent parts from Universal.

Besides Strauss comparisons, its motifs, cruel plot, and large orchestra suggest Wagner. Yet, that composer’s well-known anti-Semitism aside, Schillings was no Wagner. He did know how to write for voice and for orchestra, however, and some of the best sonorities evoke Korngold and scores from black-and-white movies.

Max von Schillings (1868-1933)
Max von Schillings (1868-1933)

The opera’s absorbing story, made up from whole cloth, is that Mona Lisa’s iconic smile stems from her planning an escape with her lover (played by the capable tenor Paul McNamara, who once sang Kazakhstan’s first Tannhäuser) from Francesco del Giocondo, her mean old jewel-merchant husband (passionately sung by tenor Michael Anthony McGee, who has Sweeney Todd in his credits). Mona Lisa plans to steal the valuable pearls he always makes her wear (though they’re not in the painting) and can’t know yet that her plans aren’t going to work out at all.

The tale is told as a flashback from the present to 1492, with a lay brother (McNamara, also in a second role narrating the grisly events for two present-day tourists visiting Giocondo’s castle. The couple are sung by McGee and the well-credentialed dramatic soprano Petra-Maria Schnitzer, who in the flashback becomes Mona Lisa herself.

Schnitzer, a regal Vienna-born blonde who does not evoke the painting’s plump Italian brunette with the knowing eyes, has sung Elsa, Sieglinde, and Elisabeth, so she has the vocal chops for this no-nonsense title role. But she appeared to be encountering the score for the first time. Expressionless, she never raised her eyes, either to the audience or fellow singers, whether involved in love duets or deadly arguments. (Other singers made some efforts at eye contact.) When not singing, she plucked at her wayward shawl. Forget mysterious smiles.

Michael Anthony McGee with Botstein and the American Symphony.
Michael Anthony McGee with Botstein and the American Symphony.

Smaller solo roles, friends and relatives of Lisa and her husband, were adroitly handled. The chorus, well prepared as usual by James Bagwell, had a small but important part. Crowd sounds of a Mardi Gras parade were accompanied by folk instruments; Latin prayers, mostly for female voices, were a reminder of Ash Wednesday and the dominant Renaissance church, contrasting with the plot’s downstage murders-by-suffocation in a walk-in jewel cabinet.

Botstein obviously believes in this piece as much as any he has presented. “No opera the ASO has performed is unworthy of a staged production,” he wrote testily in a program book essay, “and not one could ever be considered ‘obscure’ or second-rate.” Putting his money (which he complains of not having) where his mouth is, he kept good orchestral pace and vocal balance, though the two-and-three-quarter-hour concert was a half-hour longer than announced.

There was no standing ovation, and not everyone in the audience lasted for the whole thing on that record cold night. But those who did are developing a cult-like camaraderie. They understand the value of a rare chance.

Leslie Kandell has contributed to The New York Times,, Musical America Directory, and The Daily Gazette.