Imagine Richard Strauss setting something like The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, and you have something like Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt, and if you’re wondering if that’s praise, it emphatically is, though I should point out I am someone who was genuinely astonished to discover that not all children naturally love German expressionism. I, having heard a recording a few times several years ago and vaguely knowing the plot was about a man obsessed with his dead wife, figured the melodic Korngold was San Francisco Opera’s attempt to produce a non-threatening Puccini-style tearjerker, sort of a surreptitious way of scheduling Madama Butterfly yet again without looking over-reliant on warhorses. I was wrong – this opera is much weirder and wilder than that.
It was fascinating to see how many early modernist tropes show up in the young and ambitious Korngold’s work: the emphasis on dream states and the subconscious, and a presentation of reality that borders on the unreal; an obsessive, internalized, and suffocating love (similar to Marcel’s feelings for Albertine in The Captive and The Fugitive); even the use of Pierrot and the commedia figures. The opera also hearkens back to the romantic and morbid traditions in German opera, with a Tristanian association of love and death and a Faust-like battle between love and the underworld (in the specific shape of Robert le Diable, the opera Marietta the singer is rehearsing). And if some of those impulses seem to be an expression of Zeitgeisty goodness rather than of the composer's internal need, the result is still a riveting and indeed virtuosic piece.
After the performance I could see why the opera isn’t done that often – it must be draining to all involved. Snobbery about a composer who became best known for his film scores may have played a part in it as well. I really don’t think it has much to do with his late-Romantic style; the alleged dismissal of emotion and melody by the austere forces of audience alienation certainly didn’t hinder opera houses from scheduling Puccini and Strauss to the point of monotony.
The staging, with its floating constructions and huge fragmented portraits, was dreamily perfect, and complete with a few moments (like the pyramid formed by outstretched hands) that were straight from the Fritz Lang playbook. Runnicles conducted an amazing performance; I feel he sometimes has a tendency to swamp the singers, and this lush score certainly is one long temptation to do so, but he kept everything under perfect control. Torsten Kerl was a success as the withdrawn Paul and so was Lucas Meacham as Frank, his outgoing, well-adjusted friend.
But I thought Emily Magee as Marie/Marietta was the real dazzler in the cast, successfully portraying three very different women: Marie, Paul’s dead wife; Marietta, the chorus girl who resembles her; and the fin-de-siecle figure of Woman the Destroyer that Paul’s fear makes of her in his dreaming. But in a way all these women are figments of Paul’s imagination; I think it’s significant that we know nothing about Marie except that she is gone and Paul mourns her obsessively. In her few moments as Marietta, Magee created a down-to-earth, perhaps slightly vulgar but appealing woman, who rapidly realizes that Frank offers her a better chance of happiness than Paul does. And even as she realizes that, you can see that Paul is already withdrawing from her and from Frank and adding another room to wander in to his memory palace: the afternoon when he almost recaptured what was lost, and ended up only losing it yet again.
Die Tote Stadt was absolutely the highpoint of this season at the San Francisco Opera, and yes, I realize the season isn’t over, and no, I don’t need to have seen everything to make that judgment. What’s the competition? Another adequate Boheme or Tosca? Please.