As a budding opera lover, I looked upon attending Die Tote Stadt as a kind of test: it's the most obscure, the most modern, and the most "for connoisseurs" opera that I've yet seen. And you know what? I thought it was terrific. Rather than representing the limits of what I can withstand from an opera, it could just be my gateway drug to more forbidding works and less traditional stagings. The opera's two Big Tunes that I heard at the Opera in the Park concert, "Gluck das mir verblieb" and "Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen," are lush and romantic and therefore a gateway into Die Tote Stadt itself; the rest of the score bridges the romantic and the modern. Indeed, because the Big Tunes are initially presented as songs-within-the-opera, it is almost as though composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold is acknowledging that melodic outpourings are somehow old-fashioned and sentimental--even as he can't resist them.
Die Tote Stadt premiered in 1920, and it begins as a 1920s realist drama; that is, with a lot of unsubtly delivered exposition. The main character of the opera is Paul, a man who has retreated from the world following the death of his beloved wife Marie, and we learn this because his housekeeper explains everything to an old friend who has come to visit. It's a creaky device, but Korngold's music is so responsive to the text, so good at creating mood and delineating personality, that I didn't mind it much. The plot gets started when Marietta--a young dancer who bears a remarkable resemblance to the dead Marie--arrives, accompanied by some of the most splendid, crescendoing music I've ever heard. In her subsequent scene, Korngold provides a wonderful portrait-in-music of a vivacious flirt; meanwhile, Paul pours out his romantic longings. The SFO production made clear that for Marietta, "Glück das mir verblieb" is a sentimental old song that she performs in order to attract men; whereas for Paul, it is a profound message from his dead wife.
Indeed, at the end of Act One, Marie's ghost appears to Paul in a dream, and the opera shifts away from realism and into fantasy and symbolism. I could tell the audience started to get a little antsy at this point, because the ghost scene is much more static than the lively character interactions that preceded it. (It didn't help that this production combined Act One and Act Two, and that the seats in the opera house are not very comfortable.)
Still, eventually, you have to give into the dream logic, and the SFO production aided this with some astounding visuals. The back wall of Paul's living room dissolved (it was a scrim) to reveal a second, identical room behind it, with Marie's ghost. Marietta's theater troupe was done up in Fellini-esque commedia costumes and makeup. There was not one, but two, weird religious processions through the streets of Bruges (where Die Tote Stadt takes place--Paul has moved to "the dead city" of Bruges in order to wallow in his nostalgia). And there were many cool effects having to do with manipulating a John Singer Sargent portrait that represented Paul's dead wife.
The production (directed by Willy Decker, originally seen at Salzburg) was innovative without being schlocky, though there were a few choices I disagreed with: above all, having singer Emily Magee (Marietta) wear only her wig cap for a large portion of the opera. It was very distracting when she had to sing lines like "Isn't my hair lovely?" and also because all I could think of was "Ionesco would be pleased--it's a Bald Soprano!" And at another point during the dream sequence, some little houses spun around the stage to represent Paul's disorientation, but they looked too much like Dorothy's Wizard of Oz house spinning in the tornado--and if the production really wanted to evoke Bruges, the houses should have had step-gabled roofs. Also, along with Out West Arts, I have to wonder if the production would be more powerful if the lines between reality and nightmare were less clearly marked--if we were disoriented along with Paul, rather than realizing "it was all a dream" long before he becomes aware of it.
The score of Die Tote Stadt, as I mentioned, is extremely lush and colorful, with a huge orchestra that sometimes shimmers delicately and sometimes blares out climaxes. I know next to nothing about conducting, but this is the first time an opera's orchestra has impressed me as much as the singers have--kudos to Maestro Donald Runnicles.
As for the performers, Torsten Kerl, singing the difficult role of Paul (he didn't leave the stage once!) had a metallic, ringing tenor but was not the strongest actor--he looked like he was repeating the gestures the director had told him to do rather than feeling them organically. Emily Magee had a very powerful voice that effortlessly hit the high notes (an important part of Korngold's score, so full of soaring moments) and gave an energetic, physically engaged performance of the dancer Marietta. And Lucas Meachem sung "Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen" in a nice baritone voice and acted well in the role of Paul's pragmatic friend Frank.
Still, though the lead roles of Die Tote Stadt are very challenging, the opera feels less like a showcase for star performers, and more like a chance for singers, conductor, and production team to all collaborate in turning this odd story and complex score into a unified work of art. And in this case, the San Francisco Opera made it look dead easy.
If you're curious about the music and production, here is a video preview.
All photos by Terrence McCarthy, San Francisco Opera.