Dallas — Opera is the most difficult of all art forms to get right and the stars line up on rare occasion. Such is the case with Die Tote Stadt, one of those legendary operas that are nearly impossible to assemble. But The Dallas Opera has done it, with a spectacular performance of an unjustly ignored work that opened Friday night at the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House.
Die Tote Stadt, which translates as The Dead City, is notoriously difficult to sing and require singers comfortable in the Wagner and Strauss repertoire. The two leading roles of Paul (tenor) and Marie/Marietta (soprano) require voices that can sustain a cruelly high tessitura over three acts, yet are still able to float a spinning high note. The tenor hardly ever leaves the stage, and the soprano, who has equally challenging endurance problems, must portray two completely different characters.
The plot, similar to Hitchcock’s movie Vertigo, is relatively simple. Paul’s wife Marie has died and this sent him over the edge. He has turned his abode into a shrine to her. One day, he sees a woman on the street who resembles Marie. She is a local libertine, an actress and dancer and a free spirit, skipping merrily through her life. She readily accepts this handsome stranger’s invitation to his house. From here on, the opera is Paul’s hallucination. Marietta tries to make him forget Marie (whose three-story portrait looms over the proceedings), and eventually leads him to her wild revelries. Finally disgusted with both her and what he has become, he strangles her with his dead wife’s braid of hair (don’t ask). Moments later, he wakes and finds that it was all a dream, no dead body to be found, and he decides that it is time to move on with his life.
As Paul, Jay Hunter Morris, completely inhabits the role and valiantly meets its vocal demands, without ever appearing to be holding back. He ends the opera with his voice strong and, amazingly, still intact. He has clarion high notes and can sing softly as well. His characterization is also right on. You believe him every second. Also, Morris’ refined and blond good looks would certainly attract someone as sybaritic as Marietta.
An aside: Although he was well known in opera circles and had originated a number of roles, it was as the understudy in waiting in the wings that the tenor from Paris, Texas, got his chance of a lifetime. At the end of 2011, the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Wagner’s Ring had already worn through a couple of tenors and Morris went on as Siegfried, the most challenging of all the tenor roles in the four-opera cycle. Describing the reaction to this event in a New York Times interview with Jim Dwyer, Morris said: “The angels rejoiced, [and the] trees in the field clapped.” Listening to him in Die Tote Stadt, you can understand why.
In February, Mardi Byers was a last-minute replacement for another soprano scheduled to sing the dual roles of Marie/Marietta. It was remarkable that the Dallas Opera could find anyone at all who had sung the role—let alone have it still fresh in the voice—and was available on such short notice.
Byers certainly has the voice required for the role. She is a young singer and just now beginning to move into the heavier repertoire. Her résumé is replete with the lyric Italian roles and more lyric Wagner parts, although she had a recent success in the demanding role of Marie in Alban Berg’s Wozzeck.
Like Morris, she weathers Korngold’s excessive vocal demands unharmed, with her gleaming high notes as wonderful at the end as at the start. As the ghost of the dead Marie, she is regal and serious. However, her characterization of Marietta misses the mark. There is little of the slightly goofy and flighty sexpot, adored and fondled by all her equally crazy theatrical friends, that Korngold imagined. And, why not make her a blonde like the sainted Marie in the portrait? There are certainly enough references to the color of her hair in the opera, not to mention the keepsake braid that Paul uses to dispatch her, to make it a strange decision to allow her to have wild red instead.
There are two secondary characters that also require great vocal heft and solid techniques. Weston Hurt is marvelous as Paul’s best friend, Frank. He is more of a Verdi baritone than a Wagnerian singer, but this performance certainly speaks well for his continued presence in this repertoire. He is effective in portraying Paul’s “only foot in reality” as well as the evil traitor (he seduces Marietta) that he becomes in Paul’s feverish dream. As Brigitta, Paul’s long suffering housekeeper, mezzo-soprano Katharine Tier offers a sturdy characterization as well as a strong and even voice.
Marietta’s madcap group of revelers always brings some relief to the overall gloom of the opera. In this production, they are a standout. They enter from the back of the house, as though they come from some other world than what is on the stage, and slowly make their way into the action. Their antics are grotesquely exaggerated, as they should be in a dream, and all of the voices are strong. They are, in program order, Jennifer Chung as Juliette, Angela Turner Wilson as Lucienne, Jan Lund as Victorin, Andrew Bidlack as Albert, Morgan Smith as Fritz and Tony Trahan as Gaston. Smith, as Fritz who is also a commedia dell'arte style-Pierrot, gets a big aria in this scene but, on Friday, he was not quite able to sustain the attention of the audience and, as a result, it felt long and in need of a few cuts.
As a director, Mikael Melbye shows a sure sense of what is going on, as well as subtle undercurrents of what is really going on beneath the surface. His staging is never static nor, except for the scene with the revelers, overly busy. As a former singer himself, he also has sympathy for the great vocal demands made on the cast and doesn’t give them physical things to do when being winded would spell disaster. You don’t really notice his accommodations, though, because they are so deftly handled.
The director also designed the set. Like Paul’s frame of mind, it is uniformly gray with all the furnishing covered by white sheets. The house looks like it has been deserted for a long time, even though Paul is still living there. A large gray wall across the back becomes a projection screen on which projectionist Wendell Harrington goes wild. If this opera is one big hallucination, then why not? Some of the action even takes place behind the scrim. Thus bathed in strange images, the action takes on an otherworldly feeling. For example, Marietta, when doing turns in her dance, grows super-sized and then diminishes in one effective moment. Nuns parade through every now and then, as if this was a Fellini movie. Many of the images are indiscernible, only conveying a general mood. Other religious references are overdone; in one scene, Paul is carrying both a cross and a Madonna.
Conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing is a distracting presence as he bounces up and down, wildly gesticulating. However, he has a sure command of this thorny and complex score and a sense of tempo throughout. He also has a connection to the singers, giving them time to breathe at crucial times. But on Friday, the admittedly very large orchestra was too loud all evening. Worse, you could see him asking the orchestra for more in the big moments rather than holding them back. Perhaps this will not be the case in future performances, as Lang-Lessing gets used to the magnificent acoustics in the Winspear. In some other opera houses, such orchestral force is required to support the singers, but not here.
On the way out, a friend who is not a dedicated opera buff was bowled over. Still jazzed from the performance, he declared it to be “the best opera ever.” While that might be a slight exaggeration, there are many fans who consider Die Tote Stadt to be at the top of their list. It is unfailingly gorgeous in its late and over-ripe romanticism and its chromatic harmonies are addictive. While Marietta’s song from the first act is justifiably renown, beautiful melodies abound in this score. In fact, even routine conversation is lifted above the ordinary in Korngold’s hands.
If you are an opera fan, you owe it to yourself to see Die Tote Stadt, mostly because of the infrequency with which it shows up. If you are a Hitchcock fan, you really can’t miss seeing what Korngold accomplished before Vertigo. And if you are a music fan, you must hear the coda to the music of Wagner and Strauss. Korngold was the tail-end of their chromatic grandeurs, as he gave their complex romanticism one last hurrah in the 20th century.