Living “City”! …at Odyssey Opera, Boston

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Frank Kelly, Alan Schneider, Thomas Meglioranza, Jana Baty, and Sara Heaton in the Odyssey Opera production of “Die tote Stadt.” Photo Kathy Wittman.

Frank Kelly, Alan Schneider, Thomas Meglioranza, Jana Baty, and Sara Heaton in the Odyssey Opera production of “Die tote Stadt.” Photo Kathy Wittman.

Die tote Stadt
Music by Ludwig Erich Korngold

Libretto by Paul Schott (pseudonym of Erich and Julius Korngold),
after the novel Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach

Saturday, September 13, 2014, 7:30pm
Jordan Hall at New England Conservatory

Paul – Jay Hunter Morris
Marietta/Marie – Meagan Miller
Frank – Weston Hurt
Brigitta, Paul’s housekeeper – Erica Brookhyser
Fritz, an actor – Thomas Meglioranza
Victorin, the director – Frank Kelley
Juliette, a dancer – Sara Heaton
Lucienne, a dancer – Janna Baty
Count Albert – Alan Schneider
Gaston, a dancer – Jonas Budris

New World Chorale
Holly M. Krafka, Founder and Music Director

Youth Chorus
Members of Boston City Singers and Cambridge Children’s Chorus
Wendy Silverberg, Boston City Singers Early Childhood Music Director

Odyssey Opera Orchestra
Gil Rose, Conductor

SOLD OUT! The signs taped to the front doors of Jordan Hall told a rare story for Boston’s classical music scene. Odyssey Opera began its second season with a hit on its hands—the Boston premiere of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s 1920 opera Die tote Stadt (The Dead City), a romantic work now best known for a soaring soprano aria, “Marietta’s Lied,” a favorite of any diva who can sing a high C on pitch (and some who can’t). A year ago, for Odyssey’s inaugural performance, Wagner’s massive, rarely performed early epic opera Rienzi, artistic director Gil Rose led an exciting performance (with a dinner break), but barely two-thirds of the seats were occupied. For last spring’s season of staged operas at the Boston University Theatre—the alternation of operas too-big-to-stage in concert and more intimate operas fully staged is Odyssey’s overall plan—the good reviews and word of mouth were clearly having an effect. So the SOLD OUT sign—not for the usual Puccini or Verdi or Bizet—indicated both real hunger on the part of Boston’s opera lovers for unusual repertoire and, maybe even more significantly, a trust in this new company to provide performances and productions worth the ticket prices. That’s certainly the sense I got from the full-hearted standing ovation that greeted Die tote Stadt.

For most people, if they know the name Korngold at all, it’s because he’s the Oscar-winning composer of some of Hollywood’s most exciting and thoroughly “composed” film scores (The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, King’s Row, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, The Prince and the Pauper). But he not only created the sound world for Errol Flynn. His Violin Concerto has entered the standard repertoire, though has never been performed by the BSO; his only symphony and various smaller pieces have been programed by the BSO since 1915; and the Pops occasionally plays his film music. Die tote Stadt was immediately a great success for the composer, still only 23. It had simultaneous premieres in Hamburg and Cologne, and the latter was conducted by Otto Klemperer, with his wife, Johanna Geisler, singing the lead (Werner Klemperer—Hogans’s Heroes’ Colonel Klink—was their son). Now it’s still frequently staged in Europe, and there’ve been well-received productions at the Met and—especially—the New York City Opera, and more recently, last season in Dallas.

The libretto, put together by Korngold and his father, is a story based on a popular 1892 novel, Bruges la Mort, by the Belgian Georges Rodenbach. In the opera, the hero, Paul, who lives in the old church city of Bruges, can’t stop grieving over the death of his beloved wife, Marie, whom he has literally enshrined (her braided hair is the opera’s major prop). As in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (the program note says that Hitchcock was a fan of this opera), the hero becomes obsessed with his dead beloved’s living double. Also as in Vertigo, the new replacement is of an entirely different temperament from the sainted original: a kind of life force, earthy, sensual, a little coarse. Here, it’s Marietta, a dancer, a free-spirited woman of the theater and opera (you know what that means!). She tries to bring the mourning hero back to the world of the living and almost succeeds. But after their brief affair he turns on her with revulsion and strangles her with the braid… Or does he? This may only be a dream, from which he awakes to start a new life, finally leaving the dead city behind.

The score is a hyper-romantic phantasmagoria. A little Puccini, a little Zemlinsky, hints of Mahler, and heaps of Wagner and all the Strausses. The orchestra is enormous and crowded the Jordan Hall stage. It’s not a repertoire I associate with Gil Rose, although in his choice of contemporary music (he’s the director of BMOP, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project) he has shown a certain soft spot for the tuneful and accessible in contemporary music. But he led a sweeping, waltzing, festive, and dramatic juggernaut of a performance with precision and passion, switching confidently—and on a dime—from, for example, rhapsodic love music to a riveting danse macabre. The BIG TUNE, Marietta’s song—“a song” (the words tell us) “of true love that must die”—was as gorgeous as you could wish it. And it’s actually not just a soprano aria. The lute song Marietta sings for Paul turns into a love duet, then returns in Paul’s memory at the very end as he is about to start his new life. I think the better you know this score, as in any of Korngold’s movie scores, the more you can hear how elegantly it’s structured, the intricate pattern of its leitmotifs. The playing here sparkled, and even the trickiest and most deliciously delicate details (including two harps, celeste, and mandolin) were clearly audible. My only reservation was that there were a few passages during which the intensity and volume threatened the singing.

These singers, however, could handle that. Paul and Marie/Marietta were sung by two of the most impressive singers to have leading roles in any recent Boston opera production—both making their Boston debuts after singing major roles at the Met and both having already performed the Korngold in major productions. Paul is a killer role, as demanding as Wagner’s Siegfried, the role in which 51-year-old Texan Jay Hunter Morris made his reputation as a late replacement in the Met’s controversial new production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, including the Met in HD live telecasts, on which he demonstrated above all an astonishing stamina. He had that stamina here too. “I sing loud,” he writes on his website. And when it seemed he was almost about to flag, he invariably mustered a second (or third or fourth) wind. In the end, his singing was consistently strong, and he was extremely touching in both his wrenching madness and (even more so) in his final bittersweet recovery.

Soprano Meagan Miller won critical cheers at the Met last season for singing the Empress in Richard Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman without a Shadow—too bad this complex production, one of the Met’s most successful, wasn’t telecast). She has a big, full-bodied voice that can be especially ravishing when she’s singing quietly. If she doesn’t have the lavish vocal plush that made the young Deborah Voigt a star in a similar repertoire, she’s a much more interesting artist and convincing actress. In a canny bit of staging, a door opened at the back of the Jordan Hall stage and in a glowing light Miller appeared not as Marietta but as the demure and dead Marie. In both manner and vocal tone she created a real distinction between the two characters (or are they two sides of the same character?). She and Morris have not actually sung these roles together before, but the chemistry between them was palpable. They seemed an ideal pair of lovers with remarkably compatible voices. We were the lucky recipients.

Morris and Miller weren’t the only vocal assets of Die tote Stadt. All the featured singers were on the gold standard. Mezzo-soprano Erica Brookhyser would need a lot of old-age make-up for to play Paul’s aged housekeeper-turned-nun on stage, but her singing and stage personality shared a warm radiance. As a principal at the Staatstheater Darmstadt, she’s sung an impressive variety of major and featured roles, from tragic Dido in Berlioz’s The Trojans to the adolescent love-drunk Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro. I hope we hear more of her. From the New York City Opera, and appearances at the Boston Lyric Opera (to which he’s returning this season as Germont in La traviata), baritone Weston Hurt was effective and affecting as Paul’s friend-turned-enemy-turned-emotional-rescuer.

And as Marietta’s theatrical friends, Odyssey Opera had serious luxury casting: veteran character tenor Frank Kelley, with spiky hair and a patchwork jacket of many colors; soprano Sara Heaton (superb as Miranda, the humanistic daughter in Tod Machover’s Death and the Powers); scintillating mezzo-soprano Janna Baty; and superb tenors Alan Schneider and Jonas Budris. And in the most important of these featured roles, Thomas Meglioranza (“an American baritone of Thai, Italian and Polish heritage,” according to his program bio), with his lyric aplomb—he was an unforgettable presence as Chou En-lai in Opera Boston’s landmark 2004 production of Nixon in China and is familiar for his work with the Mark Morris company—was an inspired choice for Fritz, the theater company’s Pierrot. His exquisite “Tanzlied” waltz, about the “intoxication and misery” of the past, with its “Eastern” musical introduction and accompaniment by women’s chorus, is the second best-known aria from Die tote Stadt, and he nailed it. The New World Chorale and Youth Chorus made their small but significant contributions from the balcony.

Odyssey Opera’s spring season, yet to be announced, will be expanded to two fully staged operas and a double bill. But in the meantime, there will also be two one-act Daniel Argento monodramas, A Water Bird Talk (with Aaron Engebreth) and Miss Havisham’s Wedding (with Heather Buck), at Suffolk University’s Modern Theatre, November 22 and 23, and a co-production with BMOP—Tobias Picker’s The Fantastic Mr. Fox, at Jordan Hall, December 7. Die tote Stadt more than reinforces the good impression Odyssey made last season. The only problem for the public may be that tickets could become increasingly harder to get—a problem more opera companies probably wish they had.

About the author

Lloyd Schwartz

Lloyd Schwartz, Senior Editor of Classical Music at New York Arts, is Frederick S. Troy Professor of English at the University of Massachusetts Boston and a regular commentator on music and the arts for NPR’s Fresh Air. For 35 years, he was Classical Music Editor of the Boston Phoenix. He is the author of four poetry collections (most recently Little Kisses, U of Chicago Press) and the editor of three volumes by and about poet Elizabeth Bishop, including the Library of America’s Elizabeth Bishop: Poems, Prose, and Letters. His poems, articles, and reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Opera News, Vanity Fair, New Republic, Paris Review, Ploughshares, The Pushcart Prize, Best American Poetry, and The Best of the Best American Poetry. He’s a three-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for his writing about music, and the recipient of a grant from the Amphion Foundation for his writing on contemporary music. In 1994, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.

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