Posted March 21, 2014 | © Photo by Karen Almond
The long-awaited Texas premiere of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s 1920 late-Viennese style masterpiece Die tote Stadt (German for “The Dead City”) left audience members still, silent, and spellbound during the final act on opening night at The Dallas Opera in the Winspear Opera House. Composed by a prodigy in his early twenties who evolved into one of the great masters of music for the Golden Age of Cinema, this third production of the company’s 2013-2014 “By Love Transformed” season is a personal favorite of Dallas Opera General Director and CEO Keith Cerny for its “magnificent compositional style and orchestration.”
After receiving an unprecedented two-city world premiere in 1920, the exquisite German work fell into obscurity (after being banned by the Nazi regime due to Korngold’s Jewish ancestry), but has experienced a remarkable revival in recent years. Similar to the 1958 Alfred Hitchcock film Vertigo, the plot of this heart-breaking yet triumphant tale revolves around one man’s obsession with the woman he loved and lost.
Texas-born tenor Jay Hunter Morris was absolutely captivating as the emotionally-tormented Paul, a still-mourning widow who maintains an overly-intense attachment to his beloved deceased wife Marie which is outwardly demonstrated by his ‘Miss Havisham’-style in-house shrine to her memory. American soprano Mardi Byers shines in a dual role as the vision of Marie as well as Marietta, a dancer in town rehearsing for a theatrical engagement who happens to bear a striking resemblance to Paul’s late wife. Baritone Weston Hurt portrays Paul’s supportive friend Frank with vocal richness along with empathic demeanor, and the vocally elegant Australian mezzo-soprano Katherine Tier makes an impressive TDO debut as the gentle housekeeper Brigitta.
With grand, sweeping melodies at once feather light and then (as moving through a barrage of overwhelming emotions) foreboding, surging, whimsical, passionate, and more, the music of Die tote Stadt is beautifully glorious beyond description (conducted by Maestro Sebastian Lang-Lessing in his TDO debut). In lieu of elaborate set design, this production (staged and designed by the acclaimed former baritone Mikael Melbye) features a splendid blend of live action and dramatic state-of-the-art video projections (designed by Wendall Harrington) providing lush, dream-like scenic vignettes which offer visual impressions on a much more realistic and grander scale than could be achieved through the use of set design alone. Understated props and costumes (by the award-winning Deirdre Clancy) prevent any unnecessary detraction from the process of being swept away with the intense emotion ... similar to losing oneself in a fascinating novel or favorite CD.
After suffering a painfully gut-wrenching period of vacillation between the living and dead, the past and future, and loyalty to the woman he once loved versus attraction to the woman he now desires, a religious procession ultimately brings Paul to his knees (and to his wit’s end) precipitating the engulfment of the entire stage in video-projected hellfire (by far the eeriest element of this fascinating production) just prior to the surprise twist ending. Intertwined in the exciting themes of this suspenseful psychological thriller is a wonderfully romantic love story told through powerfully passionate music.
Sung in the original German with English language translations projected above the stage, Die Tote Stadt runs at The Dallas Opera through Sunday, April 6, 2014 with tickets starting at just $19.00.