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Torsten Kerl (Paul) [Photo by Terrence McCarthy]
03 Oct 2008

Die tote Stadt at San Francisco Opera

Korngold’s third opera Die tote Stadt premiered in 1920 in Cologne, the composer a mere 23 years old. Back then, opera remained a living art form, with the likes of Strauss and Puccini keeping the public excited about new works.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Die tote Stadt

Paul (Torsten Kerl), Marie/Marietta (Emily Magee), Fritz, Frank (Lucas Meachem), Brigitta (Katharine Tier), Juliette (Ji Young Yang), Lucienne (Daniela Mack), Victorin (Alek Shrader), Count Albert (Andrew Bidlack), Gaston (Bryan Ketron), Paul's Double (Ben Bongers). Conductor: Donald Runnicles. Original Director: Willy Decker. Revival Director: Meisje Hummel.

Above: Torsten Kerl as Paul

All photos by Terrence McCarthy


Korngold’s third opera Die tote Stadt premiered in 1920 in Cologne, the composer a mere 23 years old. Back then, opera remained a living art form, with the likes of Strauss and Puccini keeping the public excited about new works. The Met, not wanting to miss out on any of the excitement, immediately grabbed this odd piece for its American premiere only a year later. Korngold’s next opera Das Wunder der Heliane premiered in Hamburg in 1927 but its generic musicality and moralistic satire failed to ignite enthusiasm on either side of the Atlantic. Never mind though, it was time to write movie music.

After its initial Met performances, Die tote Stadt had to wait more than fifty years to again seduce American audiences with the heavy nostalgia that permeates Korngold’s score. This time it was a brave excursion into rare but revered repertory by America’s only adventurous company of the time, the New York City Opera, where the 1975 Frank Corsaro staging remained in its repertory until 2006. San Franciscans had to wait even longer for Korngold’s enigmatic work.

Die tote Stadt is a masterpiece, at least in the hands of a stage director able to superimpose the real and the imaginary, of an indulgent conductor able to sustain its unending waltzes and revivals of a single tune, of a tenor able to sing loud and long and high, and of a soprano able to do the same as well as impersonate a cabaret dancer. All this the San Francisco Opera brought over to us from the Salzburg Festival where it originated in 2004, with a brief stop in Vienna to pick up soprano Emily Magee.

Die tote Stadt is a tour de force for everyone involved. The formidable role of Paul, the bereaved husband of the dead Marie, belongs these days to Torsten Kerl, who continues on to London with this superb Willy Decker production. Frank, Paul’s friend and finally rival for the attentions of the dancer Marietta, is the third of the opera’s formidable roles, particularly as it is tied to the Pierrot song and antics of Fritz who taunts Paul in Marietta’s cruel commedia dell’arte improvisation on death and resurrection. The staging of this complicated scene (as well with the entire opera) was entrusted to and effectively realized by Meisje Hummel, an assistant for the Salzburg premiere.

Marietta.pngEmily Magee (Marietta)
There is no doubt that the piece casts its spell from the first note. The San Francisco audience gave its immediate and full attention to Korngold’s rich sound, conductor Donald Runnicles lovingly pulling forth its thick and weighty sonorities from San Francisco Opera orchestra. The big tune from the opera, “Marietta’s Lied” comes fairly early but it is really a duet for Paul and Marietta (though it is far better known as a stand alone concert aria for soprano), and this tune comes back many, many times, finally as Paul’s wrenching farewell to his dead wife.

The message of Die tote Stadt is simple – there is no resurrection. It is a plain statement, unadorned with philosophic and religious implications, forcefully presented with the full resources of the post Romantic orchestra with expanded percussion. The Willy Decker production assumes equal proportion in a conception that sometimes juxtaposes and other times superimposes Paul’s present upon Paul’s past, resulting in a confusion of life with dream that brings a whirling corporealness to what is cold and dead. These are the brilliant designs of Wolfgang Gussmann whose black boxes and shadowy abysses inhabited by Decker’s real people and by their shadows. The production means are both enormous and delicately expended.

TroupMarie.pngPaul and troupe

Donald Runncles resonated mightily with Korngold’s over-the-top sonorities. Torsten Kerl is justifiably famous for the role of Paul. Emily Magee brought impeccable musical taste and character dimensionality as the nemesis of the dead wife. San Francisco Opera’s particular contributions to its performances of the Decker production were adequate. The Frank of Lucas Meachem fulfilled the formidable needs of this role, though it lacked the weight as antagonist to counter balance the musical and dramatic personalities of the production’s protagonists. The Brigitta of Katharine Tier was similarly out of balance. The well-performed commedia scene added enormously to the many pleasures of this production.

Michael Milenski

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