Sunday, October 12, 2008

Dream-World Opera

It was more than a little frustrating that my subscription to the San Francisco Opera required me to wait for the final performance of the opera I was most excited about seeing, Die Tote Stadt, by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. However, I have been sufficiently busy that my patience was not unduly tried; and I have had previous experiences with final performances by this company. They tend to be just as energetic as other performances, if not more so, making the whole event almost a celebration unto itself. With an opera like this one, everyone finally has the luxury of singing full-out without worrying about having energy left for the next performance; so, if this was a celebration, it was certainly a rousing one.

Furthermore, there was a lot to be said for seeing this opera in the wake of yesterday's Salome experience. Like Richard Strauss, Korngold was not shy about deploying a full panoply of orchestral resources and then expecting his singers to be heard above all that orchestral activity. This is a composition in which balance is everything; and Donald Runnicles had as strong and sure a command of maintaining acoustic balance as Patrick Summers did in the Metropolitan Opera House yesterday. Furthermore, while the lead soprano in Tote Stadt has little to do with Salome, the double role she has to sing requires the same kind of kick-ass performing that Karita Mattila brought to her performance yesterday. The cynical might say that this was a nothing-succeeds-like-excess weekend; but, while much has been written about Korngold going over the top with his excesses, both Runnicles' conducting and Willy Decker's staging made those excesses not just palatable but downright necessary.

The important thing to recognize about Die Tote Stadt is that it is an opera conceived in the shadow of Sigmund Freud, with particular emphasis on The Interpretation of Dreams. This book is usually read in terms of what the patient's dreams tell the analyst about the patient's condition. However, closer reading of Freud reveals that, whatever, ontologically speaking, the "dream-work" may be, it is fundamentally a mechanism through which the dreamer makes sense of the complexities of a reality in which (s)he is embedded. The whole scenario of Die Tote Stadt is ultimately about such sensemaking on the part of the protagonist, Paul. This scenario is sufficiently important to the opera that Korngold himself provided his own synopsis.

Paul is a widower whose wife, Marie, has died at a very young age. He has been in mourning since her death; and, while Korngold was not specific about how long this has been, Paul's housekeeper, Brigitta, refers to it as "all these years." So he has shut himself off from the world, turning the main room in his house in Bruges (the "dead city") into a "temple of memories," in which he worships her portraits and a braid of her "golden blond hair." In an episode that could well have inspired Alfred Hitchcock's plot for Vertigo, he meets a woman on the street who bears an uncanny resemblance (at least to his eyes) to Marie; and he invites her to call in order to show her his "temple." This woman, whose name happens to be Marietta, is little more than a dancer in a troupe currently visiting Bruges to perform Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable; but Paul's obsession, enhanced by the two of them sharing a song about faithful love ("Glück, das mir verblieb"), is a major shock to his psyche. Within the first half-hour of the opera, we are transported into Paul's dream-world, excellently realized by Decker in terms of a variety of approaches to distorting the physical space on the stage.

In that dream-world Marie basically tells Paul to get a life; and Paul commences a pursuit of Marietta, encountering all of the raunchy members of her performing troupe in the process. To make a long story short, his pursuit is ultimately consummated, after which, having "conquered" Paul, Marietta ridicules his attachment to Marie. When she wears Marie's hair, Paul goes mad and strangles her to death with the hair. In terms of the overall structure of the opera, the dream begins at the end of Act I with Marie's admonition and continues through most of Act III until Marietta's death. At this point Decker restored "spatial order" to the set, to let us know that Paul has returned to reality, fully aware that the Marietta he met has nothing to do with Marie and ready to leave the "dead city" and return to life. True to Freudian theory, the dream has enabled him to make sense of his situation; and he is the better for it.

As one might expect, there is very little logic in this dream-world. It is all shocking images and turn-on-a-dime associations. This is evident not only in Decker's staging but in Korngold's score. Indeed, because the dream-Marietta is interested in little more than seducing Paul for the sake of conquest, I suspect it is not coincidence that Korngold allowed a brief suggestion of Salome to insinuate itself into his score. The point is that, when properly executed, these devices all work very well and inform us just as effectively about the working of our own psyches as any of Freud's writings could ever do. This is not an opera about Freud, but it is an uncanny demonstration of how we can better understand Freud through opera!

I mentioned that this is also an opera that demands kick-ass performing; and I made it clear that Runnicles was delivering such a performance from the pit. Emily Magee threw herself into Marietta/Marie with all the energy that Mattila threw into Salome; and watching her was just as exhausting (and exhilarating). Torsten Kerl was equally effective as Paul, sympathetic to the difficulties of his character without wallowing in them. Furthermore, the chemistry between Magee and Kerl delivered just what the scenario required. They were as much a "dynamic duo" as they were powerful soloists. At the risk of exhibiting the over-indulgent side of Korngold, my only real regret is that I was able to see this production only once; but at least I still have my Erich Leinsdorf recording to keep my memories alive!

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