First performed in 1920, Erich Korngold‘s opera “Die Tote Stadt” (“The Dead City”) was anticipated so eagerly that its 23-year-old former child-prodigy composer arranged simultaneous premieres in Hamburg and Cologne. With a brilliant libretto by Paul Schott - a pen name for his controversial music-critic father, Julius, the opera, with its theme of loss, proved a huge hit in post-war Germany.
Performing at Catholic University’s Hartke Theatre, the feisty Summer Opera is giving audiences a chance to experience again the lushly evocative music of “Die Tote Stadt.” Relying on the literary libretto, which draws deeply from the wellspring of Freudian dreamscapes, the opera confronts the eternal human dilemma of life after the death of a loved one: Do you move on or remain forever trapped in the walled city of memory?
The opera’s plot is simple but somewhat surreal. Paul, a well-off gentleman, spends nearly all his time in a room he has transformed into a shrine to his deceased wife, Marie, ignoring his friend Frank’s suggestion he get out more often. In one of his brief forays outside, he encounters Marietta, a dancer in a traveling troupe of players whom he obsessively believes to be Marie herself. After a botched affair, he strangles Marietta - only to discover it has all been a fearsome dream, leaving him back where he began.
Employing the simple tableaux of a graveyard (Act II) and a claustrophobic room (Acts I and III) serving as a shrine to Paul’s deceased wife, Thomas F. Donahue’s elegant budget sets fit neatly into company founder and Artistic Director Elaine R. Walter’s tastefully choreographed stage direction - her first-ever turn in this role.
In the 1930s, Korngold, a Jew, fled to America because of the Nazi threat. He found a second career here as arguably the first of the “symphonic” film composers, drawing on German operatic tradition to create rich, modern scores for Hollywood adventure epics. He copped an Academy Award for his dazzling score for the 1938-39 swashbuckler “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” starring Errol Flynn.
The quality of the singing on opening night ran the gamut. The traveling players in Act II frequently were inaudible, as was mezzo Alexandra Christoforakis as the maid Brigitta. This was due, at least in part, to the difficulty of overcoming Korngold’s considerable instrumental forces.
More successful were the principals, tenor Michael Hayes (Paul), soprano Kara Shay Thomson (Marietta/Marie) and baritone Mark Whatley as Paul’s friend Frank and doubling as Fritz/Pierrot. All three possess the vocal support to soar above a large orchestra for extended periods without sounding exhausted.
Mr. Hayes distinguished himself as well in his phrasing and diction. Miss Thomson’s plummy midrange and bell-clear high notes were an excellent match in the ensembles as well as in Marietta’s signature Act I solo, “Marietta’s Lied.” Mr. Whatley was impressive in his deeply moving Act II aria.
Though a trifle thin in the strings, the Summer Opera orchestra, using reduced scoring by its fine conductor, Mark C. Graf, generally provided excellent accompaniment for the singers.
WHO: Sumer Opera Theatre Company
WHAT: Erich Korngold’s “Die Tote Stadt”
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday
WHERE: 3801 Harewood Road NE
TICKETS: $50 to $70; call 202/526-1669
WEB SITE: www.summer opera.org
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS