Dallas — It is always a quandary of what to pair with a one-act opera. Such a problem was presented when The Dallas Opera programmed Erich Korngold’s delightful Viennese confection, The Ring of Polykrates. However, it was a surprise to see a violin concerto on the schedule, even if it was by the same composer. We hear plenty of violin concerti on symphonic programs and most of us don’t attend the opera to hear one. The operatic repertoire is replete with one-acts that would have been a good fit for the first half of the program. Korngold even wrote one himself, Violanta, for that very purpose.
Things were made even worse by the obviously unprepared performance of the French violinist Augustin Dumay. Playing from a closely watched score and sweating bullets, he barely made it through the Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D Major, even if it did require some odd tempi and a forgiving audience. Music Director Emmanuel Villaume made a heroic effort to stay with him when it almost went off the rails. Dumay was having a bad night on Friday, and it was visible on his face.
The opera, on the other hand was simply enchanting with an outstanding cast, charming sets and costumes, and Villaume’s expert ministrations. You could hardly wish for a better production.
The libretto of the opera was written by Leo Feld, and is based on a drama by Heinrich Teweles which in turn was based on a ballade by Friedrich Schiller. Most of the libretto was reportedly written by Erich’s domineering father Julius Korngold, who was an influential music critic. In fact, Schiller’s poem is a character in the allegoric plot of the opera itself.
The plot goes thusly: The musician Wilhelm Arndt, played with innocent and slightly bumbling humor by tenor Paul Groves, is a lucky guy. He has just received an important promotion and a large inheritance. He also has a beautiful young wife, Laura, played with both tenderness and steel by the Wagnerian soprano Laura Wilde. There are also two servants who, although only engaged, mirror Wilhelm and Laura’s happiness.
The only thing that would make Wilhelm’s life perfect would be the return of his long lost best friend, Peter Vogel, sung with bumbling bitterness by bass-baritone Craig Colclough, who turns out to be the fly in the ointment.
Referring to Schiller’s poem, Vogel says that Wilhelm’s life is so perfect that he must make a sacrifice to appease the fates and that it should be the thing most dear to him, namely his wife. By the way, we learn that he had an innocent flirt with her years ago. Multiple squabbles ensue, as Wilhelm tries to pick a fight with the patient Laura, who finally tells him off—but all’s well that ends well. The perfect sacrifice is found and it is “best friend” Vogel himself, who is unceremoniously kicked out the door.
The opera was written when the composer was just a teenager, which is astounding and puts him on the short list of musical progenies such as Mozart and Mendelssohn. Thus, he can be forgiven if his musical influences are apparent. The score has an original voice but the overripe harmonic romanticism of Richard Strauss peppers the score. More than once, Der Rosenkavalier peeks in on the proceedings. To boot, the drawing room comic operetta style brings the other Strauss, Johann, to mind. This is a terrific combination of influences in any hands, but with Korngold’s magical sense of matching music, language and dramatic occurrences foreshadows his future success in the world of film.
The comment that Korngold’s music sounds like movie music is just exactly backwards—movie music sounds like Korngold since he invented the modern film score.
The cast is uniformly strong and all the singers are perfectly cast. They look like the parts they are playing and have strong enough voices to sail over Korngold’s thick orchestration, which was wisely kept in check by Villaume.
Wilde’s glorious soprano and dignified bearing steals the show. She is a model of patience while her ham-handed husband tries to take Vogel’s advice and run her off. When she finally has had enough, she tells him what’s what while maintaining the dignity that he obviously had lost.
Groves sturdy tenor and slightly bumbling demeanor flawlessly set up his gullibility in accepting Vogel’s outrageous proposition. He brings great humor to Wilhelm’s attempts at starting a silly squabble. Bass-baritone Colclough presents Vogel as the world’s unluckiest man. His voice resounds with frustration mixed with a touch of envy.
As the two servants, soprano Susannah Biller and tenor Brenton Ryan also do a fine job. These two have slightly lighter voices than those of the other characters, which helps to separate them in any ensemble scenes. They are also easily heard over Korngold’s massive orchestration.
The set looks like the living room of a city apartment with Art Nouveau furniture and scalloped wall paper. It is just what you would expect to see in an early-20th century household that could afford a pair of servants. Tommy Bourgeois’ elegant costumes complete the stage picture.
Emmanuel Villaume conducts the opera with a light touch, tailoring the Straussisms to Korngold’s more modest effort. His podium technique changes to match the character of the music he is conducting. Those who remember his serious demeanor in TDO’s fabulous production of Bellini’s Norma could only marvel at his lighthearted approach to the amusing banter and drolleries of The Ring of Polykrates.