Die Tote Stadt
San Francisco Opera
Fri Sep 26 2008 8 pm
Conductor: Donald Runnicles
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
Original Director: Willy Decker
Revival Director: Meisje Hummel
Production Designer: Wolfgang Gussmann
Lighting Designer: Wolfgang Göbbel
Ever since a friend turned me on to this bizarre & beautiful opera a few years ago, I've been looking forward to seeing an actual production. Friday night's performance did not disappoint. It was excellent, & it makes me wonder more than ever why this work is not part of the standard repertoire.
The 1st thing to notice is the huge orchestra: I spotted 5 horns, 4 trumpets, 2 harps, 4 percussionists & even a piano. The next thing to notice is the great orchestral playing. It's an extremely colorful score, & Runnicles paid attention to orchestral details as well as the larger musical structures. There were excellent brass & woodwind solos. The flute soloist was a stand-out.
Emily Magee gave a tremendous singing & acting performance. She's a strong woman with a Wagnerian voice. She completely dominated her scenes with Paul, her voice riding over all the activity in the orchestra. I thought that she was going to kill Paul in the last act, instead of the other way around.
Torsten Kerl demonstrated terrific stamina. He is on stage the whole time, often singing extreme vocal lines, but he sounded equally strong from beginning to end. He handled soft falsetto passages very ably as well. He projected a character who is strangely passive & downright weird.
Lucas Meachen did a wonderful job with his wistful Act II aria. He makes a big, lovely sound. He's an athletic-looking guy, & the production gives him a lot of physical stunts to perform in Act II, such as riding on the roof of a moving house.
The staging really runs away with the dream aspect of the story. The action begins in a bare room, completely enclosed on all sides. Once Paul's hallucinations begin, the floor tilts, the walls fade away, the ceiling dangles at a dangerous angle. A pageant of nightmares follows. Sometimes there are 2 Pauls. Brigitta is carried to the convent on a crucifix, Fritz makes a maniacal cameo in Act III as the Pope, presenting Paul with Marie's hair as a holy relic. The tightly choreographed troupe of actors in Act II was effectively sinister.
I felt that the set & the staging made the singers seem far away. Much of the action happens upstage, & this makes for poor sight lines & poor balance between the singers & the orchestra. I was a little mad when Fritz began his famous Act II aria so far upstage.
More egregiously, Acts I & II have been combined, to shorten the over-all evening to about 2 and a half hours. This means we lose important & climactic orchestral music from the end of Act I & the prelude of Act II. I can't agree with this sacrifice of the artistic integrity of the work just so we can have a shorter evening.
Still, there were many times when I was transported to another world, such as toward the end of Marietta's visit in Act I, when Paul nearly kisses her while the orchestra makes an eerie, pitchless rumbling. Moments like this are what I come to the opera for.
Unfortunately, audiences must be staying away from this one anyway. I had a whole row to myself at the extreme side of the grand tier. There were plenty of empty seats in the dress circle as well.
P.S. I had the special treat of meeting Opera Tattler during intermission. I can attest that she has fine operatic tastes & parties at the Opera House in style.