Odyssey Opera's "Dead City": The Living End

Jay Hunter Morris of "Dead City"
On those rare occasions when the stars are all in alignment, one can experience truly magical music. Boston Odyssey Opera’s most recent performance, given in Jordan Hall, a concert of a rarely heard opera, Die tote Stadt (“The Dead City”), was one such event. On a scale of one to ten, this was an eleven. A three-act work composed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold with a libretto by “Paul Schott” (actually a pseudonym for the composer himself and his father Julius), this is an opera almost a century old that could have been written yesterday. Premiered simultaneously in Hamburg and Cologne in 1920, it was based on the 1892 novel “Bruges-la-Morte” by Georges Ridenbach. The theme of dealing with the loss of a loved one struck a chord with audiences that had recently themselves dealt with World War I. Its initial popularity didn’t endure (being banned by the Nazi regime of course didn’t help), but in recent years it has found renewed favor in productions in San Francisco, Vienna, Australia, and especially New York City Opera before coming now to Jordan Hall. This performance, which included the New World Chorale and a Youth Chorus consisting of members the Boston City Singers and the Cambridge Children’s Chorus, was under the able conducting of Odyssey Opera Artistic Director and General Director Gil Rose. As Rose himself described this work, it’s a musical journey “down dark and twisting passages”, yet a terrifically rewarding one.

The opera opens with the maid Brigitta (mezzo soprano Erica Brookhyser) showing Frank (baritone Weston Hurt) the “shrine from the past” that her master Paul (tenor Jay Hunter Morris) has created in honor of Marie (soprano Meagan Miller), his beloved late wife, with photos, paintings, and even a braid of her hair. Paul, a young man in Bruges, Belgium, at the end of the 19th century, has been overcome with grief. Frank advises him to remember his wife in a different way, by moving on with his life, which enrages Paul to the point where he reveals he has seen, on the streets of Bruges, a woman who is a perfect image of Marie and has invited her back to his home. The woman, Marietta, (also sung by Miller), a beautiful young dancer, arrives and attempts to interest him with song and dance, including the familiar aria “Glück, das mir verblieb” (Mariettas Lied or “Lute Song”), frequently performed in concert recitals. She gets bored after her efforts fail. Anxious about his own indecisiveness (that is, between his memories of Marie and the charms of Marietta), he collapses and begins to hallucinate, seeing Marie’s ghost, who first begs him not to forget her, then tells him to move on with his own life. This initial dream sequence hardly helps his confusion. In the second act, Paul and Frank fight outside Marietta’s home over a key to her house. Her dance troupe arrives and Fritz, the Pierrot of the group (beautifully sung by baritone Thomas Meglioranza) sings a love song, also familiar from concert recitals. Marietta dances flirtatiously, making Paul declare he never loved her. She then seduces him and takes him home. In the last act, Marietta is found in Marie’s shrine, angering Paul. She accuses him of hypocrisy, dancing with a braid of Marie’s hair, which Paul then uses to strangle her. When the lights come up the hair is where it had been preserved, and a very much alive Marietta arrives for a forgotten umbrella. Frustrated, she leaves, and Frank enters. Paul tells him he is through with the fantasy of Marietta and decides to leave Bruges, the dead city, to start his life anew. Other characters expertly portrayed included Victorin (Frank Kelley), Juliette (Sara Heaton), Lucienne (Janna Baty), Count Albert (Alan Schnieder), and Gaston (Jonas Budris).

Korngold, well known for his lush film scores (notably the universally acclaimed music for “The Adventures of Robin Hood”, considered one of the finest examples of the genre ever composed), wrote many other compositions in so many genres that his versatility is unquestioned. The two principal performers in this production are versatile as well. Morris, a true heldentenor who famously brought the house down when he stepped in as Seigfried in the Met’s Ring Cycle, and the title role in San Diego’s “Moby Dick” on PBS, will repeat the role of Frank in “Dead City” in Poland; Miller, a winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, will repeat her role of Marie/Marietta in Tokyo and Hamburg. The current performance was yet another feather in their caps, sung with meticulous care and feeling by both of these artists as well as the supporting cast and choruses. Morris looked authentically surprised at the overwhelming reception he (as well as the rest of the cast) received from the wildly enthusiastic sold-out house. The conducting by Rose and his orchestra received a well-deserved standing ovation. For the eighty-four musicians in the pit and sixty-three singers spread throughout Jordan Hall, this was a triumph.

Some might find Korngold’s work a bit bombastic or overly romantic, but not this audience, (or this critic), as his music was not derivative but evocative of Strauss, Wagner, Puccini and, yes, even Miklos Rosza (composer of the score for “Ben Hur”). It was immediately accessible on first hearing. The libretto, as is the case with so many operas, was frequently rather odd but never boring. As Brigitta sings at the beginning of the first act, “everything is old and ghostly”, and her master has said of the dead city: “Bruges and I are one”. Paul’s loss is poignant: “our love is, was and shall be”. Even the stage directions are melancholy in the final scene: “It is bleak morning”. Yet in the end it is life that Paul chooses, metaphorically leaving his old grieving self as he leaves the ancient “dead” city.

Odyssey Opera Company continues to provide local opera lovers with opportunities to experience less frequently heard works, such as their “Zanetto”, “Susanna’s Secret“” and most notably “Un giorno di regno” last Spring. Their next offering will be a double bill consisting of operas by Dominick Argento, “A Water Bird Talk” and “Miss Havisham’s Wedding”, to be given on November 22nd and 23rd at the Modern Theatre at Suffolk University, followed on December 7th by Tobias Picker’s “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” at Jordan Hall. Since the concert of “Dead City” was completely sold out way in advance, one might well make haste to secure tickets for the remainder of this company’s season. Thus far in the company’s brief but stellar history, they have been true to their mission of rediscovering musical treats. In “Die tote Stadt” they have restored to its rightful recognition a neglected gem.

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