Korngold’s haunting opera revived in style

By Lawrence A. Johnson

SAN FRANCISCO—“The guy needs a psychiatrist,” said one woman in the audience of Paul, the obsessed protagonist of Die tote Stadt. Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s once-celebrated, uber-Romantic opera opened Tuesday night at the War Memorial Opera House for its belated San Francisco Opera debut.

The Korngold revival over the last two decades has rekindled interest in many of the Viennese composer’s concert works. His Violin Concerto has edged its way into the repertoire, and Korngold is posthumously getting his due as a greatly gifted composer whose posterity should be based on more than his sumptuous Warner Brothers film scores, magnificent as they are.

Korngold’s stage works have not yet come in from the cold, though his most acclaimed opera, Die tote Stadt is receiving increasing attention in Europe. Kudos to San Francisco Opera for bringing this Willy Decker production, first mounted at the Salzburg Festival, stateside for a three-week run.

Premiered simultaneously in Hamburg and Cologne in 1920, Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) was a mega-hit of Lloyd Webber proportions in its era. The opera’s name has been kept alive by the first act’s drop-dead-beautiful Gluck, das mir verblieb, still a favorite recital item of sopranos everywhere.

Based on Georges Rodenbach’s expressionist novel Bruges la morte, the opera is set in the monastic gloom of Bruges where the grieving Paul cannot rouse himself from mourning over his recently departed wife, Marie. He meets a young slatternly dancer, Marietta, who happens to be her exact likeness. The conflicted Paul is torn between his sexual attraction to the earthy Marietta and his devotion to the pure Marie, with the action unfolding in a series of fantastical scenes that ultimately lead to murder.

Korngold’s remarkable score is brilliantly, even audaciously orchestrated (including two harps, piano, organ, celesta, harmonium and five percussionists) cast in a style of Straussian opulence that sounds majestic even to jaded 21st-centiury ears.

As a narrative, tote Stadt is a Freudian’s dream with its quasi-necrophilic obsessions, cathedral spires and assorted repressions and unspoken desires. Too often modern productions focus on the weirdness of the long second act—here logically incorporated into Act 1 without a break— and neglect the genuine humanity at the opera’s core. At the coda when the damaged but wiser Paul rises to leave Bruges and sings a final farewell to Marie reprising that aching Act 1 aria, the effect is utterly heart-breaking.

Tote Stadt remains little known, apparently even in a sophisticated opera city like San Francisco, and there were scores of empty seats opening night with more electing to depart at intermission. Significantly, the opera and performers were warmly applauded by all who stayed.

San Francisco Opera had its share of opening-night glitches Tuesday, including Emily Magee as Marietta losing her wig moments after her entrance. Yet with a first-rate cast, Decker’s imaginative staging, and inspired advocacy by Donald Runnicles and the orchestra of this tortuously difficult score, Korngold’s forgotten masterpiece lives again, proving this is a work fully deserving inclusion in the regular repertoire.

Decker’s staging, helmed in this production by Meisje Hummel, doesn’t follow the composer’s meticulous stage directions but for the most part is faithful to its spirit, while investing the fantasy sequences with a whirling succession of images that conjure up the unsettling dream-like landscape of Paul’s disordered thoughts.

I could have done without the bald Marietta, and making Paul too much of a cringing twitchy neurotic from the start. But most of Decker’s conceits worked effectively, aided by Wolfgang Gussmann’s minimalist set for Paul’s den, the ceiling and walls moving to precarious angles as his nightmare unfolds. Decker’s double images for the touching conversation between Paul and the apparition of Marie was clever and atmospheric. Most striking was his varied and copious utilization of John Singer Sargent’s 1890 painting of Elsie Palmer to represent Marie. The painting in many guises serves as the opera’s visual leitmotiv, and well chosen too, as the young Miss Palmer’s visage has an innocence and haunting otherworldly sadness wholly apt for Paul’s departed wife.

The leading roles are punishing for both singers but the two principals overcame the myriad hurdles to make impressive company debuts. Torsten Kerl has made the role of Paul almost a signature piece, and he brought considerable vocal power and dramatic heft to the role. The German tenor has an ample, vibrant instrument and assayed the big moments while bringing a touching delicacy to Paul’s final scene. Perhaps his Paul is too unhinged at the start, but Kerl certainly made Paul’s anguish and conflicted emotions vividly manifest.

In the dual role of Marie/Marietta, Emily Magee overcame the wig disaster to provide a fiery and passionate tour de force debut. The American soprano has the dramatic power and lyric sensitivity for the role, and her rendition of Gluck das mir verblieb was beautifully sung, invested with just the right ache of nostalgic longing. Magee made Marietta’s own sadness and unwholesome history palpable and brought vehemence and daunting intensity to her climactic confrontation with Paul. She was also wholly credible as a dancer, displaying a light-footed grace, and brought ethereal purity to the passages in which she doubles as Marie’s apparition.

Lucas Meachem, here cast as both Paul’s friend Frank and the Harlequin Fritz, made much of his comprimario double-duty. The baritone proved an unusually forceful and imposing Frank, and a graceful Harlequin, though his rendering of Fritz’s Viennese waltz sounded tight opening night. As Paul’s loyal housekeeper Brigitta, Katharine Tier was too young for the role and failed to project in her brief, soaring Act 1 arietta.

Taking some minor trims, Donald Runnicles drew out the lyric set pieces too lovingly at times. But the company’s music director, who conducted this production at Salzburg and other venues, is clearly in synch with this opera, and led a sensitive, scrupulously balanced account of Korngold’s rich, opulent score, eliciting polished and responsive playing by the SFO orchestra.

Die tote Stadt has five more performances through Oct. 12. Tickets are $15-$290. 415-864-3330; http://www.sfopera.com.

[Photos by Terrence McCarthy]

Posted in opera review, Performances

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Wed Sep 24, 2008
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