Mona Lisa: The Stolen Smile

The Stolen Smile

by Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Mona Lisa, performed on February 20, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

This concert performance of Max von Schillings’ 1915 Mona Lisa is the latest installment of a series of concert performances of rare operas the ASO has pioneered since the mid 1990s. The list of operas performed by the ASO in New York City includes French works: Bizet’s Djamileh, Lalo’s Le Roi D’Ys, Magnard’s Bérénice, Chausson’s Le Roi Arthus, Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe Bleu, Chabrier’s Le Roi malgré lui, and D’Indy’s Fervaal. The ASO also has featured Russian works: Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart and Salieri and Dargomizhsky’s The Stone Guest. The German works in the list include four one act operas by Hindemith (Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen; Sancta Susanna; Nusch-Nuschi; and The Long Christmas Dinner), Marschner’s Der Vampyr, Schreker’s Der Ferne Klang, Schmidt’s Notre Dame, three works of Strauss (Feuersnot, Die Liebe der Danae, and Die ägyptische Helena), Weill’s Der Protagonist and two full acts of The Eternal Road, and two works of Zemlinsky (Der Zwerg and Eine florentinische Tragödie). We have also offered Dallapicola’s Il Prigioniero and Volo di Notte, and Ethyl Smyth’s The Wreckers (which will have a fully-staged production this summer at Bard’s SummerScape).

Mona Lisa fits this series. It is the second “Renaissance” opera from the early twentieth century, a work that can be placed in the same category as Zemlinsky’s Eine florentinische Tragödie. What defines the ASO’s long list is the judgment that there are dozens and dozens of great operas from the 19th and 20th centuries that deserve to be heard live, not merely on old or new recordings, or DVDs or pirated videos. Opera is the one medium from the past that resists technological reproduction. A concert version still represents properly the sonority and the multi-dimensional aspect crucial to the operatic experience. One ought not judge an opera from sound or video documents any more than one can judge a work of architecture from photographs or even a sophisticated computer simulation and video tour.

The plain fact is that opera, which thankfully is experiencing some vitality as a medium for contemporary composers, possesses an enormous treasure trove of great works that are condemned to silence. Not all may be “original” in style. Many can be regarded as “eclectic.” But greatness and power in any art form, particularly opera, are not contingent on “originality.” Consult any guidebook to opera published before 1950 and one will be astonished at how many operas are described, with plots, as presumed constituents of an active repertoire. Then check on the active repertoire today. Look at what we are missing and how distorted our connection to the history of opera has become. One will be dismayed to find that most operas worthy of performance have vanished from view, except for a small community of cognoscenti. No opera the ASO has performed so far is unworthy of a staged production; and not one could ever be considered “obscure” or second rate. And there is a list of works that remain to be done that could take us another half-century to perform at the rate of one each year.

Schillings’ Mona Lisa falls squarely in the group of deserving operas. Its obscurity dates from 1933. Schillings died in July of that year, just months after the Nazis took power. Furthermore, he was an ardent nationalist who signed on to the Nazi cause. His leadership of the Prussian Academy of the Arts under the Nazis permitted him to dismiss, with some relish, Jews, socialists, and communists from their posts, including Schreker and Schoenberg. Schillings had earned respect before 1933 as a composer but even more as an administrator. He served as head of the State Opera in Berlin, and had been active as a conductor. He was, by all accounts, a martinet—stiff, unpleasant, and nasty. But he was nonetheless an accomplished composer of several operas. His early works showed a high degree of craft and were successful, although viewed as too explicitly derivative and neo-Wagnerian.

A bit like Leoncavallo, Schillings, however, managed to write one operatic “hit”: Mona Lisa, in 1915. It was a runaway success and experienced, in the successive decade and a half, well over 1200 performances, including a production at the Metropolitan Opera, and in St. Petersburg in the 1920s alongside Wozzeck and Der Ferne Klang. The international rage for Mona Lisa came to an abrupt halt in 1933; Schillings’ death placed the work on the periphery in Germany, and a revival there after 1945 was unthinkable.

Bad people and anti-Semites have written great operas, as the case of Wagner amply illustrates. Despite the bad odor surrounding its composer (who died well before the onset of the most heinous atrocities) Mona Lisa is a terrific piece of music and theater. Its style is far less Wagnerian than Schillings’ other operas and in fact it reveals a shift toward the Italian style of verismo, befitting not only its subject matter, but also the taste of the public in 1915. It is not “original” in the sense of Strauss or Puccini. It is simply inspired—beautiful, effective, and engaging—much like the best works of Korngold and Zemlinsky.

Part of the allure and potential of the work as more than a rarity and period piece rests in the subject. Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait, known mostly as “La Gioconda” (a title that bears no relationship with the plot or subject matter of the opera of the same name by Ponchielli) was a well-known small portrait by Leonardo that hung unobtrusively in the Louvre alongside many other Renaissance Italian paintings, a work purchased by Francis I of France from the painter himself. What turned the Mona Lisa into the most famous painting in the world was an event that occurred in August 1911. The painting was stolen. The thief was an obscure Italian workman. He simply walked out with it at 7 AM on a Monday. The crime was a sensation and captivated the entire world. Picasso was accused, briefly, of the theft, as was Guillaume Apollinaire, the poet, who was held in custody for a week. The case remained unsolved for two and a half years, baffling the police around the world.

The notoriety of the theft was enhanced two and a half years later when the thief reappeared and clumsily attempted to sell it to an art dealer in Florence. The dealer contacted the Uffizi in Florence, and together they retrieved the painting and apprehended the thief. Its recovery, its display in Italy, its return to the Louvre, and the trial of the thief were headline news. The story of the theft, the analysis of the culprit and his motives, have remained the subject of articles and books ever since.

After its recovery it was put on temporary display in Florence. Over 30 thousand people showed up to view it, creating a riot. From the moment of its return, the portrait has remained the most reproduced and visited work of art in the Western world. More startling is the fact that between 1911 and 1913 more people went to the Louvre to gaze at the empty spot from which it had been stolen than had ever visited the painting when it was there. It has inspired painters, poets, and pretentious mystery writers. The Mona Lisa remains far and away the main reason tourists go to the Louvre today. It was always a masterpiece, but it became the most famous painting in history only after the 1911 theft and its miraculous return in 1913.

The sensation surrounding the theft of the Mona Lisa was the reason Schillings had the idea of writing an opera about the painting. He saw an opportunity that could not be missed. The extensive journalistic coverage of the whole affair included an extensive account of the painting’s merit and substance, particularly the enigmatic smile of the subject, and, of course, her beauty. The intense scrutiny of the painting invited fiction: who was the subject? What sort of personality was she? And, above all, what is it with that smile?

The librettist Schillings chose was an Austrian poet, actress, and writer of children’s literature, Beatrice von Dovsky (1870–1925). She acted in the Raimund Theater, playing soubrette roles—the ingénue, the mischievous flirt. She went on to write specifically Viennese character pieces marked by humor and sentimentality. Her most lasting achievement (apart from having a small street named after her in Vienna’s 13th district) is the libretto of Mona Lisa.

Dovsky’s genius was to invent a somewhat mystical and supernatural framework. The plot concerns a contemporary couple. They are visiting, on their honeymoon, the palace of the “real” La Gioconda, Mona Lisa, in Florence. The opening scene—which parallels the close of the opera—makes brilliant use of the familiar discourse about Mona Lisa’s smile and sexuality. Dovsky’s opening text is suffused with contemporary notions concerning desire and marriage. The tourist couple is a young beautiful woman and a bored, rich, older husband, now on his third marriage. She is sad and introspective. She cares not for pearls and jewels, but for happiness. She is mesmerized by the visit to the home of a legendary enigmatic beauty where the unusual events took place in, of all years, 1492—the year the Spanish expelled the Moors from Europe and Columbus made his voyage to the New World.

In a brilliant theatrical gesture, their guide, a friar, begins to recount the events in 1492 that unfold scenically to the audience. A tale of an unhappy marriage and jealousy, of greed, cruelty, and romance unfolds, framed by the competing claims of the Dionysian—revelry and abandon—and the Apollonian—reserve and ascetic religiosity (represented by the followers of Savonarola). The clue to the husband’s jealousy and Mona Lisa’s adultery is her smile—that rare sign of her desire and happiness that periodically shatters her otherwise icy exterior. Lover and husband in the tale die, but Mona Lisa survives.

The story explains the painting’s subject and the painter’s representation of Mona Lisa. When the story ends, we are returned to the present. The audience is left alone with the visiting couple and the friar. As the curtain falls, it becomes apparent that the young bride is herself Mona Lisa, a reincarnation, or perhaps the immortal living person of the original Mona Lisa.

This fabulous and utterly operatic plot brought the very best out of Schillings. The opera boasts crowd scenes, affecting melodies, a colorful and not overwhelming orchestral texture, and high drama. Mona Lisa possesses a great, timeless, and accessible story, and beautiful music. So why should it not regain a place in the operatic repertory, alongside the warhorses from that same era that are so overexposed that the music that initially made them famous is diminished in favor of bizarre productions and lame attempts at modernization? The warhorses now function best as vehicles for succeeding generations of divas and divos. This opera, ironically in part because it is entirely forgotten, makes its case directly as music and drama; it requires no gratuitous directorial ingenuity to captivate today’s audience. After all, everyone knows the “Mona Lisa.” We are still entranced by her smile and under the spell of the unique aura of the painting and the painter.