As an arch-Romantic riptide churned and crashed against barely adequate seawalls, the deluge managed somehow to surge through, broaden out, and flood over Jordan Hall’s full capacity this past Saturday evening, in time for the downbeat Oddysey Opera’s concert production of Die Tote Stadt. Either there are still 1029 some-odd in Boston who remember the “arch-musician” Erich Korngold, as Richard Strauss dubbed him. Or else, as Korngold biographer Brendan Carroll suggests, the school of late-late, high-High Romanticism, “eclipsed by Arnold Schoenberg and his pupils,” lives on “far longer than might be supposed; some believe that it never actually ended…”
Thanks to the explosion of the web, media, and streaming, the collective conscious may finally grasp the concept that music is not compartmentalized, but is a continuum, from weirded-out “classical” black box experimentalism to the most remunerative popular genres. So, today, maybe a lot of people do know how Korngold bestrode that continuum from long-hair triumphs to Hollywood riches.
Watching the audience surge in, conductor Gil Rose and concert underwriter Randolph Fuller may have ruefully wondered if they should not have booked the 2600 odd seats at Symphony instead. Full value was delivered, judging by the approval after each act, crescendoing to an fff standing O. three hours (and change) later.
Korngold’s musical language was recognized as distinct and innovative from its inception. As of age10, he was producing works of maturity, recognized and admired by the cream of Europe’s social and artistic aristocracy. His earliest music did not imitate the immediately preceding school of composition, but, rather, it fully integrated the contemporary musical idiom of Puccini, Strauss, Zemlinsky, Schrecker, even the contemporary French. His earliest scribbling’s included striking harmonic idiosyncrasies. Mahler, meeting the Wunderkind Korngold barely past his 9th birthday, exclaimed: “A genius, a Genius!” Kaiser Franz Josef, Mahler, Puccini, Richard Strauss all stood equally amazed. Yes, one hears in the 23 year-old’s intricate Tote Stadt borrowings from his admiring elders. Yes, there are swatches of Puccini flashing past. But then, there are swatches of Korngold flashing past in the later Turandot! Yes, Korngold incorporates Strauss’s signature submediant-dominant-tonic (vi-V-I) cadence, a Rosenkavalier signature, (perhaps as a conscious hommage), as well as the über-famous harp/celesta/flute/strings chords in the “Presentation of the Rose.” And, come to think of it, his chime passages are a direct snatch from Parsifal. But one doesn’t hear these as derivative, because Korngold’s idiom is so strikingly original and personal.
We would offer a thought about Korngold’s treatment of his source, a play and novel by Georges Redenbacher,which depict a young widower trapped in obsessive/compulsive grief for his deceased wife. An itinerant dancer, with uncanny resemblance to the lost wife, at first rekindles his joie de vivre, but the liaison leads to disillusion, revulsion and her murder. Musical adaptation by Second Viennese-ers would have led to another expressionist Wozzeck or Lulu. However, Korngold (and his protective if not smothering father) metamorphosed the story into a hallucinogenic fantasy. So, rather than an expressionist text à la Büchner or Wedekind, we have a Freudian text. The widower, through his subconscious dream-working, gains insight both into his cultish obsession and into the likely ruinous outcome of the liaison. No blood is spilled. Freud’s “talking cure” is transfigured into a “singing cure.”
Regarding this performance, paraphrasing Mahler, we might exclaim: A feat! A Feat!
Besides wielding a most able baton, Rose seems adept at recruiting the best and brightest local orchestral players—which the audience readily acknowledged every time he singled out the gargantuan ensemble for recognition. Orchestral recruitment may fall within his usual and customary feats. But casting the singers was, perforce, an even more remarkable coup.
The opera’s lead roles, Paul and Marietta/Marie boast Richard Tauber and Maria Jeritza as only the most illustrious in a long lineage of interpreters. In the grueling tenor lead, we had Jay Hunter Morris, perhaps best known currently as the Metropolitan Opera’s Siegfried (in both Ring operas) and the beautiful and poised Meagan Miller, a noted Met Straussian (Empress; Ariadne). Rose enticed both stars to this, their Boston debuts. They stooped. They conquered.
As veteran Wagnerian/Straussians, neither Morris nor Miller had difficulty surfing the orchestral breakers crashing forward and over them, from right behind their backs. They gamely gave their all, declining any alternate lower notes provided in the score. (Morris did refrain from about 5 measures at  when his written line would be hopeless against full chorus, and as the composer, in a footnote, himself permits.) The repeated A’s, A flats and G’s strewn through his part all sounded round and full and dead on, often phrased with beautiful “hairpins,” and with a suggestion of a baritonal richness, rather than the brassy urgency of Siegfried’s tessiture. The role holds the stage for essentially the entire opera. One would suppose the two Siegfrieds are even more demanding, but it would be fun to hear Morris’ opinion.
Against the shimmering grandeur of Korngold’s orchestration Miller’s soprano soared effortlessly and as ideally as could be wished or imagined here, or in any of the comparable lush contexts provided by Wagner, Strauss or their epigones. There is no fragility in her high range, including the one high C just after . So there was a quality of mezzo fullness that complemented Morris’ “baritone.” (One wonders why Korngold bothered with that single high C, which actually seems gratuitous. Maybe he got the the end and figured he had to throw one in for good measure.)
The remaining roles were delivered with formidable artistry, by Weston Hurt (Frank), and Erica Brookhyser (Brigitta). Thomas Meglioranza won notable approbation at the “curtain” as Fritz (aka Pierrot). This role is blessed with one of the work’s two irresistible plums, the Tanzlied (“Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen). The occasion did not fail him, and vice versa.
Alan Schneider (Graf Albert) delivered a remarkably fine clarion tenor. Nor would we slight performances by Frank Kelley (Victorin) Sara Heaton (Juliette) and Janna Baty (Lucienne) Jonas Budris (Gaston). So, in sum, across the board, this was stellar casting.
Preparing for the Vienna premier which followed on the heels of double world premiers in Hamburg and Cologne, Korngold wrote “We shall have a good twenty-five to thirty orchestra rehearsals. Everyone says it’s so incredibly difficult….” So delivering the opera under today’s far less luxurious constraints reflects impressively on Odyssey’s organizational prowess, and we suspect most particularly that of artistic director Rose.
In terms of general organizational strengths, compliments are due for a program well done. Laura Stanfield Prichard’s extensive notes covered just about everything one would want to say about Korngold, his career, the opera and its genesis and were definitely worth reading.
The supertitles, at this point de rigueur for any opera performance, staged or concert, even in English, were just fine. And thank you.
Rose led his formidable forces through the intricate score, delivering all of Korngold’s demanding elasticity of tempo, undoubtedly learned from his admired and admiring senior, Puccini.
Obviously, the more gargantuan the orchestra, the more danger of dynamic imbalance. Jordan Hall is relatively small with exceptionally live acoustics. An orchestral fortissimo on this stage is far stronger that one at Symphony or from a pit. Korngold limits his dynamic notations from pp to a very rare fff. Though it is fine for Rose to glory in massive tuttis at ffs, it should be also admitted that in Jordan Hall this dynamic all but pushes up to the pain threshold. Notwithstanding, there was not a balance problem with the singers. But, the fortissimi would have been even more effective if Rose had damped down the pianissimi even further to the truly delicate. For more arresting dynamic contrasts, since he couldn’t go louder, he could have gone softer. We will not fault the final high b-flat for Paul marked pp, but delivered by Morris and orchestra as a forte. After three hours holding the stage, Korngold’s marking this passage as pp might even be considered a cruel jest.
Nor will we cavil about one or two pitch uncertainties at entrances of the children’s chorus. These could be remedied one way or another and we congratulate the youngsters on the undoubted thrill and great fortune to participate in such a grand venture.
This writer had the fortune to see the New York City Opera’s Die tote Stadt in its groundbreaking 1975 production of Gert von Gontard, designed by Frank Corsaro and under Julius Rudel (if memory serves in the particulars). Die Tote Stadt is, after all, a show, not a concert. Stagings in our current century have become much more common. To indulge in some salutary dream/work of our own, we could imagine a joint collaboration between Odyssey and an entity such as the Boston Lyric to stage the spectacle. Yes this is wild enough dreaming. Artistic types are rarely on speaking terms with their competitors. They are barely on speaking terms with themselves. Well, then, instead, let’s dream Rose brings “Das Wunder der Heliane,” Korngold’s operatic ne plus ultra, to the concert hall (at a minimum). And, Mr. Rose, there is only one extant recording available…
Feats, don’t fail him now!