"Tote Stadt" thoughts on the eve of SF Opera's 88-years-late premiere
In a Herbst Theatre Insight Panel Monday, on the eve of the San Francisco
premiere of Erich Korngold's "Die Tote Stadt," Donald Runnicles' discussion
of the work included two startling statements, bracketing the eight years
of his involvement with it.
The San Francisco Opera music director, who leads the War Memorial
performances, Sept. 23-Oct. 12, has also conducted "Die Tote Stadt"
in Vienna and Salzburg. Surprise No. 1: when asked how long he has
been familiar with the opera (first performed in 1920), Runnicles said
that until 2000, when he started preparing for the Vienna production the
next year, he had known only the work's two popular arias, "Pierrot's
Tanzlied" and "Marietta's Song." This came as great relief to most opera
fans, Self included, with similarly limited knowledge of the work, which
was enormously popular at first, then virtually disappeared from the
scene, only to be revived again in the 1990s.
For Runnicles' second surprise, the scene shifts from 2000 to last
Friday, and the San Francisco dress rehearsal. Repeatedly described by
the conductor as "fiendishly hard," the music presents constant tempo
changes, difficult balances, and virtuoso but youthfully unconventional
orchestration from a wunderkind composer who completed the work at age
23. Although bringing "impolite responses" from musicians here on first
reading, the San Francisco Opera Orchestra performance at the dress
rehearsal was not only on par with those in Vienna and Salzburg, Runnicles
said, but "better," with more clarity and detail. Whoa!
Runnicles and stage director Meisje Hummel (who was Willy Decker's
assistant at the original Salzburg production) spoke at length of
the opera's complexities. Based on Georges Rodenbach's 1892 novella
"Bruges-la-Morte" (The Dead City of Bruges), "Die Tote Stadt" is about
a man's obsessive grieving over his wife's death, his encounter with a
woman who resembles her, and then the story unfolds in a constant - and
at times sudden and mysterious - interplay of reality and dreams.
The opera takes place in two realities, Hummel said, one being the
dreams - nightmares - of Paul, the principal character. He is "petrified"
in his grief, she said, and comes through an enormous struggle between
his pain and the will to live. An alternative title Korngold considered
for the opera was "The Triumph of Life." As to dreams, Runnicles said,
as people get older, people reappearing in dreams take on strange forms,
dreams become busier and busier, and in cases such as Paul's a great
personal loss further complicates and colors dreams. And yet, he said,
"by the end of the opera, you won't want to leave, just as you don't
want to be awakened from a rich dream."
Written at a time "when Freud was Elvis Presley in Vienna," "Die Tote
Stadt" is rich in psychological aspects, Runnicles said, but there is
an even larger reality to it. "It is a metaphor for Vienna after World
War I, feeling loss and bewilderment" in a vastly changed world. While
the ability to feel and depict "deep, painful nostalgia" by the elder
Korngold (Vienna's most famous music critic) is understandable, Runnicles
said, it is a mystery how the young composer - without memories of pre-war
Vienna - could hold up his end. (With tragic irony, Korngold's latter
years in Hollywood, while outwardly successful, were spent in grieving
over the loss of his status as a great opera composer, Runnicles suggested.)
Led by Director of Music Administration Kip Cranna, the Herbst Theatre
event also included baritone Lucas Meachem, who sings the dual roles
of Fritz and Frank, and has the ovation-evoking "Pierrot's Tanzlied."
Meachem, a recent Merola Program participant and Adler Fellow, is engaged
in a busy international career. He spoke of the opera's "phenomenal
music" and its "celebral stimulation," looking forward to reprising his
role in Madrid in a couple of years.
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