An Opera by Hollywood’s Golden Boy

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The New York Sun

Erich Wolfgang Korngold, whose “Die tote Stadt” made its premier Sunday afternoon at the New York City Opera, turned himself into a veritable cottage industry in the 1930s and ’40s, writing dozens of scores for all sorts of movies — including “King’s Row,” wherein Ronald Reagan utters his most famous line, “Where’s the rest of me?” He followed in the footsteps of his father, the influential Viennese critic Julius Korngold, as a shaper of musical convention. In fact, the anti-Mahler riposte that his symphonies sound like movie scores is directly attributable to acolyte Korngold’s hold on the cinematic imagination.

Before his expatriation, Korngold enjoyed considerable success and one undeniable hit that brought him worldwide fame.”Die tote Stadt” (The Dead City) was so eagerly awaited that it had its double world premiere in the German cities of both Hamburg and Cologne on the same night, December 4, 1920, and was picked up for the very next season by the Metropolitan Opera, with Artur Bodansky conducting and Maria Jeritza starring in the dual role of Marietta and Marie.

The story of this necrophiliac opera is as follows: Paul worships the portrait of his dead wife. When he discovers a young girl who is her doppelgänger, he falls under her spell. Later, disgusted by her philandering, he breaks it off, only to soon fall back in her thrall. Eventually he strangles her with the braid of his deceased former lover (not exactly “Cosi fan tutte”!). The city of Bruges, Belgium, with its decaying Gothic culture, serves as metaphorical backdrop.

This production by Frank Corsaro is an interesting albeit busy one that depends a little too much on the smoke machine. As befits an opera by Hollywood’s golden boy, there are ubiquitous films by Ronald Chase, mostly showing the rooftops of Bruges. Although these diversions were quite tasteful, they worked on the audience as conversation starters, people feeling free to discuss their own trips to Belgium rather than letting the rest of us hear the music.

Vocally, this performance was a bit of a disappointment. Susan B. Anthony encountered some minor audibility problems at the beginning and some rather major intonational ones at the conclusion. Her voice was mostly steady, but maddeningly monochromatic. She never moved me as either temptress or ghost. Debut artist Dan Chamandy was rather weak throughout. Perhaps it was opening night jitters, but he showed considerable strain on a regular basis and had a difficult time hitting the pitches of most notes above conversational range.

There are two big numbers in “Die tote Stadt.” The first, “Glueck das mir verblieb,” is known popularly as “Marietta’s Lied” because it has become a favorite of sopranos in recital. However, in its original form it is the love duet of Act I. Parenthetically, I can think of no other romantic coupling that has suffered a similar fate. This day it was decently sung, but lacked any sense of passion. Perhaps Mr. Chamandy was so deeply in character as a depressive that he found any overt displays of emotion inconsistent, but without them the romance was already dead.

The second aria, from Act II, is “Mein sehnen, mein waehnen,” a poignant treat for the baritone voice. Thomas Hampson is a strong proponent of this song as a recital piece and for this performance, the fine young Keith Phares put it over very beautifully. This was far and away the highlight of the afternoon and the crowd knew it, rewarding him with its warmest ovation. Mr. Phares sang the role of the pilot in “The Little Prince” last season and was quite impressive. And Weston Hurt was rock solid as Frank.

But for me, the real star of this work should be the orchestra. There are two spectacular entr’actes, reminiscent of Korngold’s scores for those fabulous Errol Flynn movies, and conductor George Manahan did a spirited job of bringing out the kaleidoscopic timbres of these mini symphonic poems. However, elsewhere in the text, the normally reliable ensemble was sloppy, often fudging the accompaniment at key points. There were some dead spots of instrumental sound as well, perhaps created by the covering of the orchestra pit. All of the singing took place behind a transparent curtain and this may also have affected the acoustics haphazardly.

A listener at this performance might be forgiven for thinking that all of these singers intoned at exactly the same volume level. Until City Opera cures itself of its addiction to an amplification system, it can never truly mount a first rate performance. There is always that overlay of surrealistic homogeneity that intrudes on the dramatic structure — minor characters sound as strong-voiced as principals. Further, when those principals are as good as Mr. Phares, it is a shame that we don’t hear the actual voice, but rather a dehumanized electronic imitation.

Through October 14 (Lincoln Center, 212-721-6500).

The New York Sun

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