On March 26, 2014 The Dallas Opera presented the third of its five performance run of Erich Korngold’s opera Die Tote Stadt. First performed in 1920 when the Viennese composer was 23. The opera was simultaneously premiered in Hamburg and Cologne. Korngold is most famous for his movie scores. He had first gone to Hollywood in 1934 to adapt Mendelssohn’s music for Max Reinhardt’s film of Shakespeare’s A Mid Summer Night’s Dream. He returned in 1938 to do the score for Robin Hood. The Anschluss occurred when he was in America. For obvious reasons the Jewish composer stayed in the US for the reminder of his life. He became a citizen in 1943. He said that Robin Hood saved his life.
Korngold wrote the libretto with his father the music critic Julius; they used the pen name Paul Schott. It’s based on the symbolist novel Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach. While the novel ends in despair and tragedy. Korngold’s story concludes with acceptance and life. The protagonist Paul is obsessed with grief over the death of his beloved wife Marie. He has made his home into a shrine devoted to her memory. Its living room contains a large portrait of her and a braid of her hair in a glass case. He meets a frivolous dancer, Marietta, whom he invites to his house because she closely resembles Marie. She stays for a few minutes and departs leaving behind her umbrella. The rest of the opera is Paul’s dream. He awakens close to the end of the third act, Marietta returns to retrieves her umbrella and then leaves. Paul decides to abandon grief and to get on with his life.
Remember, this opera was written during the zenith of Freud’s career in Vienna. Accordingly, a lot of strange stuff happens during Paul’s dream. Marietta seduces Paul. After watching a religious procession and after Marietta taunts him with Marie’s braid, he strangles her with it. There’s a lot more, but you should have the gist by now. The story could have ended differently. In fact, Götz Friedrich, ended his 1983 staging of the opera with Paul pointing a gun at his temple. The opera received a lot of attention during the early twenties. It served as Maria Jeritza’s debut at the Met. The company did it 12 times all with Jeritza and Orville Harrold. The latter was a lyric tenor and likely totally unsuited for the role. The last Met performance was in 1923.
Perhaps the main reason this work is not done more often is that it requires a heldentenor who is onstage for almost three hours and who has to blast his way over a lushly scored orchestra that is making as much sound as four 787s taking off on a short runway. The sound is glorious to be sure, but it makes the tenor part just about the most difficult in all opera. A strong spinto soprano in the dual role of Marie/Marietta is also required, but this part is easier to cast. The dead Marie appears to Paul in his dream.
A good lyric baritone is also needed in another dual role – Frank/Fritz. For some opaque reason the Dallas company used two baritones instead of the customary one. Why Weston Hurt who was Frank allowed this to happen is also not transparent. Fritz (dressed as Pierrot) gets to sing the wonderful aria ‘Mein sehnen mein wähnen’. For whatever reason Fritz was sung by Morgan Smith.
A real find was the Australian mezzo Katherine Tier. She sang the relatively small role of Paul’s housekeeper Brigitta who seems to harbor a repressed passion for Paul. He hardly knows she exists. Tier has an enormous voice which cries out for the great Verdi mezzo parts. Keep an eye out for her. She seems like a real comer.
This production was a shared effort with the Danish National Opera. Accordingly the Danish soprano Ann Peterson was engaged to sing Marie/Marietta. She cancelled because of back problems and the American soprano Mardi Byers was hired in her place a little more than a month before the first performance. The Dallas company was lucky to find a singer who had sung the role before, especially at such a late date. Byers’s sounded very under powered for the first half of the show. In the second half of the second act her voice opened and she produced a louder sound. Loud is a definite requirement for this opera. Even so, her impersonation would not justify a special trip to the theater for Korngold’s sumptuous work. Her acting was a problem. Marietta is a dancer and the singer who portrays her actually has to dance. Ms Byers is a large person and her attempts at graceful motion were not successful. When she struck poses meant to be seductive or erotic she elicited laughter from the audience.
Jay Hunter Morris, a native of nearby Paris Texas, has made an international career by singing very difficult roles that few other tenors want to touch. The part of Paul, as suggested above, makes Otello seem simple. Morris sang it with aplomb. His voice is not the most sensuous, but it has the power and projection demanded by Korngold’s score. Paul has to hurl vocal thunderbolts into the house from start to finish. Morris sounded as fresh at the final curtain as he did at the opera’s start – a tour de force that earned an ovation from the audience during the curtain calls. His acting conveyed the tortured introspection that afflicts Paul.
Conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing, in his Dallas Opera debut, drew a brilliant reading from his orchestra. There are two inspired vocal segments in the opera. Marietta’s lied in the first act which is a duet not an aria; the melody returns (sung by Paul) to close the opera. The second great vocal moment is the baritone aria mentioned above. The are many beautiful moments in the piece, but they are given to the orchestra which also is responsible for a lot of richly scored dramatic exclamations. The Dallas players handed their parts with great virtuosity – a second tour de force.
Mikael Melbye was responsible for the direction and the scenic design. He placed the entire action in Paul’s livingroom. He made brilliant use of projections and a transparent screen which formed the rear wall of the room. The Commedia dell’Arte players (actually Marietta’s friends) in the second act entered down the two aisles of the Winspear Opera House. The production fully captured the dream state which makes up most of the work.
In summary, this was an outstanding mounting of a work that’s only just beginning to find a place in the standard repertory even though its almost a century old. If you can find a tenor with vocal cords of steel and lungs like a giant bellows you should put it on. In passing, there were a lot of empty seats in the auditorium. I would guess about 25% were unfilled. The number was even greater at the start of the third act. What kept people away and made some leave early is difficult for me to say. The score is no more challenging than many of Richard Strauss’s most popular pieces. Those that stayed were at a peak of enthusiasm at the opera’s conclusion.