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Die tote Stadt @ Summer Opera

Michael Hayes (Paul) and Kara Shay Thomson (Marietta)
in Die tote Stadt, Summer Opera Theater Company
The founder and guide of Summer Opera Theater Company, Elaine Walter, is taken by Erich Korngold's most successful opera, Die tote Stadt. In only thirty seasons, the company has now mounted this unlikely work not once but twice, last in 1998 (in what was by all accounts an extravagantly strange production) and again this month. Perhaps it is justified by the coincidence with the 50th anniversary of Korngold's death, which was observed last November. For whatever reason, the production that Walter directed was stripped down to its essence, in musical and visual terms.

The libretto is credited to one Paul Schott, only in the 1970s revealed to be a pseudonym for Korngold's father, the powerful music critic Julius Korngold. The odd, psychological story was drawn from Bruges-la-Morte, a short novel by the Belgian writer Georges Rodenbach. Published only in 1892, it was a notably current choice of subject, which librettist and composer lightened considerably in tone. A man in Bruges (the dead city of the title) struggles to keep the memory of his dead wife, Marie, alive by preserving their house in its exact state like a shrine. A woman who is her uncanny double, an uninhibited dancer named Marietta, shows up in his life and haunts his dreams (this is where the Korngolds changed the details quite a bit).

The singing on Wednesday night was good among the leads, especially tenor Michael Hayes in the role of Paul. It is a voice that has been around, that sounds lived in but with the fortitude to project with confidence and almost all of the high notes. Sadly, there was not much believable chemistry between Hayes and soprano Kara Shay Thomson, making her debut with the company as Marietta/Marie. Her voice opened up in a similar scope, making for an expansive lute song, for example, in the first scene. As Frank/Fritz/Pierrot, Mark Whatley had his own impressive, perhaps overeager debut with the company, while Alexandra Christoforakis's performance as the maid, Brigitta, was sensitive but at times covered. The supporting cast in the second act, with its musical quotations of Meyerbeer and Wagner, made a valiant effort to get past the reduction of numbers to a handful instead of a larger scene.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, Not Much Depth To 'Die Tote Stadt' (Washington Post, June 16)

T. L. Ponick, Lush 'Dead City' revived (Washington Times, June 16)

Tim Smith, Korngold's 'Die tote Stadt' gets rare revival in DC (Critical Mass, June 19)
In both musical and directorial terms, this was Die tote Stadt reconceived as a chamber opera. The set by Thomas F. Donahue was framed by large canvas pieces, on which projections of trees or buildings occasionally appeared (lighting designed by Donald Edmund Thomas). Mark C. Graf, who held the performance together at the podium, made the reduction of Korngold's vast score. The orchestra, listed as the Student Orchestral Institute, was in fact composed of a mixture of students and professional ringers. They played remarkably well, considering the demands of such a task: it was in the strings that problems were most evident, where special effects (harmonics especially) and large swells of sound were less than satisfying.

Die tote Stadt is rife with references to the idea of the resurrection and transformation of bodies. In the second scene, Paul watches Marietta reenact the scene she is dancing at the opera, the Resurrection scene from Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable. In the third act of that grand opera, there is a ballet of debauched nuns who rise from their graves led by their Abbess, Helena. Then, in the third scene, Paul and Marietta hear the Corpus Christi procession through the streets of Bruges. (Although it is not identified as such, the children sing of accompanying Christ's blood in the procession -- the feast is the solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ -- and the monks sing the hymn Pange lingua gloriosi corporis mysterium, usually sung on this feast during the public procession.) References to Salome crop up, too, in the dancing and sexual hunger of Marietta. With such a rich background, this production had an air of the quotidian about it, which was on one hand refreshing and on the other a little too plain.

Die tote Stadt, rare enough that it would be a shame to miss it, will be performed only once more, tomorrow afternoon (June 22, 2:30 pm) at Catholic University's Hartke Theater. The company's second production, Carmen, will be mounted next month (July 20, 23, 27) at Sidney Harman Hall downtown.


Anonymous said...

SF Opera presents a different production of it this fall in among a season of otherwise greatest hits of the repertory. Should be interesting....

Garth Trinkl said...

You mean "otherwise greatest hits of the repertory" such as the world premieres of Stewart Wallace and Amy Tan's "The Bonesetter's Daughter" and Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally "Three Decembers (Last Acts)"?

(The Washington NATIONAL Opera, which promised Congress and the American people that it would stage one American opera each and every season, has so far failed to announce the American opera that it plans to stage next season here in the Nation's Capital...)

Unknown said...

I was backstage as a chorister and techie in the 1998 production, which the late John Lehmeyer directed. He took the hallucinatory atmosphere as far as it would go, and possibly further: during one instrumental interlude in Act III Paul got strapped to a cross and whipped by two supers in clown costumes.