Eighty-eight years after its sensational premiere in Germany, Erich
Korngold's "Die Tote Stadt" (The Dead City) arrived at the San Francisco
Opera Tuesday night in a production for which few adjectives seem adequate,
but we'll go with "splendid."
In the history of ultra-romantic music, Korngold's work falls in the
long line peaking with Richard Strauss and Arnold Schoenberg (of the
turn-of-the-century "Gurrelieder), employed successfully by Puccini, and
eventually exploited and abused by Andrew Lloyd Webber. "Die Tote Stadt"
is all sweet sounds, each phrase resolving in a major key, the ebb and
flow of a beating heart, divine schlock - and something different,
A future Hollywood soundtrack king, Korngold started writing this opera
when he was 20, and the work seems to explode continuously with youthful
genius, constant tempo changes, pitching impossibly difficult vocal lines
against a 75-piece orchestra in frequent spasms of ecstasy. It's all
terribly difficult to do, and supremely rewarding to hear... when done
The work enormously popular at first, then virtually disappeared from
the scene, only to be revived again long after the composer's death in
1957. In the U.S. the New York City Opera led the way, with the 1975
Frank Corsaro production, featuring Carol Neblett and John Alexander.
(The American premiere took place in 1921 at the Met, with Maria Jeritza
as Marie/Marietta, shortly after the unprecedented double world premiere
in 1920 in Hamburg and Cologne.)
Under Donald Runnicles' baton and with a sterling cast, the premiere
went better than well, creating a grand, memorable night at the opera.
The story of a man's agony - and eventual triumph over grief - in the
"Dead City" of Bruges is told in two, frequently interacting, realms.
Paul (sung heroically and gloriously by Torsten Kerl in his San Francisco
debut) is unable to overcome the death of his wife, Marie, and when he
meets a woman who looks like Marie, his struggle to choose between the
living and the dead, the imperfect and the idealized, takes place in his
grim reality and in increasingly disturbing dreams. Emily Magee, also
in her debut here, took the dual role of Marie/Marietta and sang through
an astonishing range from coquettish to heroic, from Musetta of "La
Boheme" to Wagner's Brunnhilde.
Former Adler Fellow Lucas Meachem returned to the house victoriously
in the double role of Frank and Fritz, in great voice and with a
self-confident performance, singing with effective restraint one of the
opera's big hits (which persisted through the years of neglect for the
whole work), "Pierrots Tanzlied." Current Adler Fellows Katharine Tier
(Brigitta), Ji Young Yang (Juliette), Daniela Mack (Lucienne), Alek
Shrader (Victorin), and Andrew Bidlack (Albert) have all done well,
especially Tier, in an important role.
The Willy Decker production, a hit in Vienna and Salzburg (also
conducted by Runnicles there), is being staged in San Francisco by
Meisje Hummel, and except for a runaway wig here, a creaking set unit
there, it all went swimmingly. Wolfgang Gussmann's production design
is grandly operatic, with walls and ceilings moving in time with the
shift of action between the real and the dream worlds. Ian Robertson's
Opera Chorus acted and sang on the wings of fabulous harmonies rising
from the orchestra pit.
It was puzzling to see a significant number of patrons departing in
the intermission, probably due to the length of the first act (nearly
an hour and a half); they missed a short (40-minute) and gorgeous second
act, at the end of which instead of being sated, the listener would like
to hear more. For every audience member leaving early, I'll wager on
two or three who will return to another performance.
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