Hollywood Come Lately
A masterful opera by an oldtime Hollywood master
Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) is best known for his classic film scores, especially for two great Errol Flynn swashbucklers, Robin Hood and Captain Blood. Yet long before Hitler's Anschluss of Austria forced Korngold to leave his native Vienna for the frustrating delights of tinseltown, he had been acclaimed as one of Europe's leading opera composers. When he was only nine, Korngold was declared a genius by no less an authority than Gustav Mahler. In 1916, Korngold achieved a sensation with his first opera, Der Ring des Polykrates. Admittedly, his father's status as Vienna's most powerful music critic didn't hurt.
Korngold based his third opera, Die tote Stadt, on a poetic novella, Bruges la mort, by the Belgian Symbolist Georges Rodenbach. Its 1920 premiere was an immense success, and it quickly made the international rounds. After Korngold's migration it fell into obscurity with the rest of his serious works: Because he, like Richard Strauss, wrote in a passionately late-romantic idiom, critics from the 1930s onward dismissed his work in favor of music reflecting more contemporary trends. Then, in 1975, the New York City Opera revived Die tote Stadt. Inspired by Korngold's Hollywood career, the production, by Frank Corsaro, deployed still and motion picture projections in a way that was at the cutting edge at the time. Moreover, it sparked a reassessment of Korngold as one of the last great late-romantic composers. Ironically the brief introduction to the first act of Die tote Stadt contains what we now recognize as the musical embodiment of Hollywood's golden age. But it was written 14 years before Korngold set foot in a film studio. Hence it really is doing him an injustice to say that his music "sounds Hollywood," for the idiom that Korngold effectively invented for Hollywood was already crystallized in his operas and symphonies, and not the other way around.
Last month the NYCO revived the Corsaro production for the first time in nineteen years as a vehicle for their newest diva, Lauren Flanigan. But it's an uncomfortable fit.
Like Korngold's opera Das Wunder der Heliane, Die tote Stadt concerns itself with a man's sexual obsession. Paul, a wealthy, middle-aged widower in fin-de-si┐cle Bruges, worships his dead wife, Marie, even maintaining a room in his house as a shrine to her memory. When he encounters young Marietta, he fancies her as the veritable reincarnation of his wife. Alas, Marietta, a dancer in the local opera company, is a tart who regards Paul as a silly oddball, but a rich one. She sings him a beautiful old song, Marietta's Lied, a highlight of the score, but when her seductive dance stirs Paul to woo her, Marietta laughs him away and departs. He then dreams a vivid and decadent dream that culminates with Marietta seducing him and being strangled by him with a preserved braid of Marie's hair. Paul awakens, his mind cleared, and decides to leave Bruges and its morbid recollections behind.
Korngold's score is a dazzling combination of post-Wagnerian melody, magically harmonized and scintillatingly orchestrated. Nevertheless Die tote Stadt demands a convincing, alluring tenor and soprano in the leads. In Lauren Flanigan, the NYCO has a versatile, deeply committed artist with undeniable stage presence. Moreover she moves very well, hence portrays a young dancer with some verisimilitude. Marietta must sing with appealing sweetness; unfortunately, Miss Flanigan's voice is dramatic not sweet, and her driven vibrato and strident tone are do not suggest Marietta's erotic charms. As Paul, John Horton Murray proves equally dedicated to his task. But his stage acting is rudimentary and his characterization tentative. Paul's tragedy is that of a still-vigorous man trapped by his memories, but Mr. Murray can only offer a kind of bumbling Mr. Chips.
And on April 18, though he managed to sing Korngold's ardent, difficult tenor line, he only just managed.
Both he and Miss Flanigan sounded strained, and oddly enough, both often seemed covered by the orchestra, while the orchestra itself, under George Manahan, sounded small scale.
The second act dream sequence featured several excellent singers, Steven Goldstein and Keith Jameson as Victorin and Count Albert respectively, and especially baritone Mel Ulrich, who sang both the roles of Paul's friend Fritz and Paul's dream-rival, Pierrot. As the latter he brought down the house with his ardent performance of "Pierrot's Lied," another highlight of the score. Corsaro's production is less striking now that mixed media have become standard theatrical equipment. The still projections remain evocative, but the film snippets have the distracting jerky quality of bad home movies.
And the projections require that the entire opera be staged behind a scrim, which lends the irritating impression that we are overhearing the singers and viewing them through smudged eyeglasses. Nevertheless, the NYCO revival proves that Die tote Stadt finally deserves a place in the standard repertoire. And that's nothing to sniff at.