Music critic and journalist
     Cheryl North :: Reviews

San Francisco Opera Performance of Die Tote Stadt

Review of the September 23, 2008 performance published in papers of the Bay Area News Group, under the headline,"'Die Tote Stadt' an S.F. Opera Stunner".

By Cheryl North

Sigmund Freud would have been fascinated had he been in the audience of the San Francisco Opera's opening production of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's 1920 opera Die Tote Stadt Tuesday evening at the War Memorial Opera House.

A host of Freudian elements were assayed onstage via the opera's embodiment of the struggles between death and life, dreamlike fantasy and reality, sexual vs. spiritual ecstasy, and transcendence vs. tawdriness. There were overtones of sado-masochism, Oedipal shadings and mini-essays on historical mores and hypocrisies all clothed in a post-World War I Zeitgeist.

But overpowering all else was Korngold's magnificently potent, mesmerizing music.

The usually sedate Tuesday night opera audience was moved to a standing ovation and a chorus of "Bravos!" during the curtain call, when Maestro Donald Runnicles dashed onstage and gestured to the miracle-working orchestra.

How could the world have left this glorious, tumescent music and replaced it with the frigid cacophony of atonal, machinelike 12-tone music and other "modernist" trends? It was like moving from a plush cushioned wine-red couch to a room furnished only with chrome side chairs.

Korngold's Die Tote Stadt requires a huge Mahler-size orchestra playing Richard Strauss textures roiling like syrupy-thick waves under rapturous Puccini-beautiful vocal lines. It's at once imaginative, rhythmically driving, and yes — beautiful.

Erich Korngold was born 1897 in Brno, Moravia. His father, Julius, was Vienna's top music critic and an enthusiastic proponent of the music of Gustav Mahler during his son's formative "Wunderkind" years.

Often compared to the child-prodigy Mozart, young Erich had already composed and premiered several successful compositions by the time he started work on Die Tote Stadt. In 1920, the masterpiece was given a dual premiere in both Hamburg and Cologne.

His father Julius, under the pseudonym Paul Schott, wrote the libretto, an adaption of the a novella titled Bruges-la-Morte by Belgian writer Georges Rodenbach. The joint father-son creation was an instant hit and received multiple stagings throughout Europe for the next decade until it was banned by the Nazis. Then, it fell into relative obscurity until it was restaged for the Salzburg Festival in 2004, conducted by our own Donald Runnicles.

Tuesday's production opened with the distraught Paul, wandering about his Bruges, Belgium apartment, as he tenderly caresses a plait of the his dead wife Marie's red-gold hair while staring at a huge standing portrait of her.

"Bruges and I are the same — we worship the most beautiful thing that is: the past," Paul exclaims to his solicitous friend Frank.

A battle ensues between a fantasy dream world vs. the real world. The orchestra evokes the conflict and chaos within Paul's grief-ridden mind via neo-Wagnerian chromatic dissonances punctuated with passages of sublime calm as the massive ceiling tips to a precipitous angle, as though balanced on a razor's edge . The "real" room continues to deconstruct as its mirror image, appears at the back of the stage: reality melds into dream — or nightmare.

"You're divided between life and death!" exclaims Frank.

And indeed Paul is so divided. He is torn between his idealized, but disembodied, adoration for his wife, Marie, and his lust for his very real mistress, Marietta.

Singing the lead role of Paul was German tenor Torsten Kerl, whose initial high notes sounded a little squeezed. Later, however, his heldentenor broadened and melded beautifully with the soaring, Isolde-like soprano of Emily Magee in the dual role of Marie/Marietta.

The role of Frank/Fritz was eloquently colored by Lucas Meachem's richly resonant baritone, while the outstanding supporting cast consisted of the excellent Adler Fellow Katharine Tier, as well as Ji Young Yang, Daniela Mack, Alek Shrader, Andrew Bidlack, Bryan Ketron, and Ben Bongers as Paul's double. A starring role was also played by painter John Singer Sargent's 1890 portrait of Elsie Palmer as the pictorial embodiment of the dead Marie.

If it were a film, it would probably have an R rating. Nevertheless, it's a tour-de-force production not to be missed.

Korngold's time has finally come.

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