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.
Solar oranges Radiant and round, piled high On a sky-blue plate
A propos of nothing, but regarding the famous flubbed oath of office on Inauguration Day: Is anyone really surprised that a Bush appointee to the Supreme Court mangled the language of the Constitution?
Michael Tilson Thomas opened last Thursday’s San Francisco Symphony concert with one of his own pieces, Street Songs. This is an unfortunate title, for me at least, because its echo of the play/movie/opera title Street Scene led me to expect one of those well-meaning but dreary attempts as in the 1930s to make American music sound like “real” people: you know, “We're Americans! Let’s not sound like Europeans – let’s sound like European immigrants!” It’s actually a piece for brass that is like walking through deep canyons; there are great blocks of sound, but they’re not building blocks. I enjoyed it moment by moment, but there were too many moments (it was about twenty minutes long, nearly as long as the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 5 with which Tilson Thomas and Garrick Ohlsson then dazzled us, the slow movement of which was particularly beautiful).
But it was the second half of the program, the Tchaikovsky 5, that helped me figure out what has been bothering me for a while about Tilson Thomas’s conducting the past few seasons. He goes for a certain monumental quality, and while each phrase unfolds with stately and sensuous luxuriance, and has an almost physical volume of sound, certain other qualities – frenzy, fleetness, grotesquerie, and the more diabolical ironies – are lost or crushed. (This may be why some are consistently dissatisfied with his Berlioz and Prokofiev. I think this is what bothered me about his last Mahler 7.)
I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing: although lots of people are impressed by sheer loudness, that’s not quite what (or all that) he’s doing; he successfully avoids the bombastic and produces sounds that are genuinely grand and noble, and it’s too obvious to point out that grandeur and nobility do not perhaps arise naturally in contemporary American culture. No wonder audiences gratefully give him ovations for this achievement. (His Berlioz may not explain to you why that great composer was considered a mad man who wrote unplayable music, but it will consistently remind you that Berlioz was also an artist who adored Gluck.) But I can’t help feeling that there’s a certain petrifaction to some of the performances. While being grateful for monuments, we should also notice, remember, and enjoy the lichen, the cracks, the worn stones, the insects fluttering by.