Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Korngold's Die Tote Stadt

San Francisco Opera
Sept. 26, 2008

There's no need for hallucinogenic drugs in San Francisco these days - just go to the opera. Following its world premiere of the Amy Tan-inspired The Bonesetter's Daughter, with its flying waitresses and eye-candy projections, the Opera presents a wild, surrealist production of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's 1920 Die Tote Stadt, taken from an original production at the 2004 Salzburg Festival.

"The Dead City" is Bruges, where our hero, Paul, has isolated himself in an apartment, the better to mourn his late and beloved wife, Marie. He sits before her oversized portrait, holding a glass case containing a lock of her hair (well, actually, an entire wig, but there are utilitarian needs at play here). Paul's worship is interrupted by his friend Frank, who tells him that enough is enough, and he needs to go back to living his life. As if to verify Frank's concerns, Paul announces that he has met a reborn Marie: a dancer conveniently named Marietta, who does, indeed, turn out to resemble his late wife. But Marietta is pure hedonist, miles away from Sainte Marie; her first comment upon entering the apartment is "You must be well-heeled!" She does, however, know how to sing a song - the ecstatically lovely "Gluck, das mir verblieb," often referred to as Marietta's Song, and one of the few kernels of real hope in the opera. In any case, Marietta doesn't last long with Paul, whose attentions keep drifting back to the portrait. Tiring of playing second fiddle to a ghost, she departs.

This is when Paul fades off to sleep, and where all the Dali-esque fun begins. The walls and plaster ceiling tilt away at odd angles, and an identical apartment with an identical Paul appear behind a screen, where Marie has come to offer her husband some consolation. Paul's dream then flies off into all sorts of Freudian directions, complete with over-the-top tableaux. It's not good enough to simply show Marietta off having fun without him; she must be carried off by a dozen white-faced Busby Berkeley tapsters in tuxedos. When Paul's housemaid Brigitta runs off to the convent, she must be carried away on a giant white crucifix by a crowd of white-faced nuns. And then a white-faced, white-dressed commedia dell'arte troupe arrives, looking like a ghost cast of "Cabaret," to mock Paul and his silly attachments to the dead. All of these sequences are delivered in brilliant, vivdly imagined fashion. (Split the credit between original director Willy Decker, original designer Wolfgang Gussmann, and current director Meisje Hummel).

The cast is stocked with voices you could listen to for hours. German tenor Torsten Kerl lends Paul a warm, forceful tone, and a presence edged with a touching vulnerability to offset the dalliances with obsession. Soprano Emily Magee as Marietta (and Marie) is pure spitfire, particularly in the final act, where she taunts and raves her way through a battle with the memory of Marie. (And what brand of chutzpah does it take to perform nearly two acts completely bald?) Mezzo Katherine Tier, one of SFO's Adler Fellows, gives an excellent accounting of Brigitta, particularly in her first-act lament for her master's condition, and baritone Lucas Meacham shines as Frank, delivering an outstanding performance of "Mein Sehnen, mein Wahnen" as the dream-troupe's Pierrot figure, Fritz.

The score is a revelation, fully exploited by Donald Runnicles, who also conducted the production's 2004 Salzburg debut. It's fascinating to hear the (then-23-year-old) Korngold play with the timbres of madness, tickling the edges with the celesta and harmonium, signalling the onset of lunacy with dissonant chords from the piano. Korngold was criticized by contemporaries for his conservatism, but he obviously knew when to employ modern techniques in the service of torment and disorientation. The opera is brilliant, and one can only hope it continues to be performed on a regular basis.

Through Oct. 12, War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, 301 Van Ness Avenue, $15-$290, 415/864-3330, http://www.sfopera.com/.
Photo: Emily Magee as Marietta, Torsten Kerl as Paul, Lucas Meacham as Fritz (Priest). Photo by Terrence McCarthy.

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