In Review > North America

Die Tote Stadt

Dallas Opera

In Review Dallas Tote Stadt hdl 614
Die Tote Stadt at Dallas Opera, with Byers and Morris
© Karen Almond, Dallas Opera 2014

Erich Wolfgang Korngold's early masterwork Die Tote Stadt — which had its premiere when the composer was twenty-three — deserves more stagings than it has received in this country during the past century. For this alone, the Dallas Opera production of this lush, melodious hothouse of an opera, redolent of Strauss, Mahler, Puccini and movie music yet to come, was noteworthy (seen Mar. 23). 

Originally created for Danish National Opera, the Dallas production was in the hands of Mikael Melbye (as both stage director and scenic designer), Deirdre Clancy (costumes), Wendall Harrington (whose video designs filled the back wall and lent an appropriately eerie touch, sometimes kaleidoscopic, sometimes claustrophobic, to the action taking place within a single set) and Peter Kaczorowski (lighting). Sebastian Lang-Lessing, making his Dallas Opera debut, conducted with authority and grace.

The story, based on Georges Rodenbach's novel Bruges la Morte, could be right out of Maeterlinck or Poe. As noted in Eric Myers's OPERA NEWS essay "Out of the Shadows" (Mar. 2014), Korngold's opera has striking similarities to Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 film Vertigo. Paul, the widowed hero, keeps a picture of his late wife as a memento of his love; in the Dallas production, that picture filled most of a sidewall, at the opposite of which was a single window to signify the outside world. Paul sees a young woman, Marietta, whom he takes as the reincarnation of the dead Marie; he becomes infatuated, maddened. A dancer, she turns out to be a seductress, not a saint; he strangles her with a braid of his dead wife's hair. Then Paul wakes up and discovers that he has dreamed the whole thing. With overtones of both Johann and Richard Strauss, the opera could just as easily represent turn-of-the century Vienna as Bruges; some of the music sounds like Lehár on steroids, especially Pierrot's Act II aria "Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen." The opening of Act II, in which Paul reclines on a couch, his friend Frank sitting behind him, before he begins a quasi-mad-scene monologue ("Was ward aus mir?") recalls Freud's couch and a hallucinating analysand.

Die Tote Stadt requires two great singers for Paul and Marietta. In Dallas, Jay Hunter Morris had three considerable advantages — powerful stage presence, vocal volume and exquisite diction. He could be heard throughout the house over Korngold's roiling score. And he was equally able to float the name "Marie" at the beginning with sweet wistfulness. However strong, stentorian and dramatically persuasive, Morris also sounded — alas — frayed and strident, especially in Act I. The role of Paul has a punishingly high tessitura. In his Act II opening Morris sang much better. By Act III some of the audible vocal difficulty had returned, but the performance was never less than powerful.

Soprano Mardi Byers sang Marie/Marietta with elegance and panache. Her voice has a golden top. Marietta is meant to be a sexy femme fatale capable of leading a besotted man into self-abjection and derangement, but as a seductress who performs a Salome-like dance and cavorts with her small band of commedia dell'arte chums in the Act II picnic, Byers seemed much too healthy, happy and virtually all-American.

As the voices of sanity, both Katharine Tier (Brigitta) and especially Weston Hurt (Frank) sang with depth and subtlety. Frank, the steady guide, warns Paul that he has been wasting his time on dreams and phantoms ("Du bist ein Träumer, / bist ein Geisterseher…. Du schwärmst für ein Phantom"). Hurt's resonant baritone here conveyed sadness and helpfulness.

As Marietta's band of pals in Act II, Jennifer Chung, Angela Turner Wilson, Andrew Bidlack, Jan Lund and especially Morgan Smith, as Pierrot, all sang with a lighthearted frivolity that never disguised the sinister undertones of seductiveness and sexuality that run through the entire opera like leitmotifs from an expressionistic horror film. spacer 


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