Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

In Bruges

September 26, 2008

l-r: Emily Magee as Marietta, Torsten Kerl as Paul, and Lucas Meachem as Fritz
Photo: Terrence McCarthy/SFO 2008

I’ve finally made it back to San Francisco this weekend to catch up with the opening opera productions of this season. I’ve had some trepidation about this given the decidedly lackluster impression that SFO’s summer productions had on me. But I’ve decided that I may have been a tad unfair about some things back in June given that I was still severely jet-lagged after my trip to Europe. But now I’m back in town, well rested, and ready for some opera.

So why not start off with the just-opened production of Erich Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt. It’s the only German language opera the company is offering in its 08/09 season so you’d think the company would make the most of it. And they do. Under the guidance of the unfortunately outgoing music director Donald Runnicles, the orchestra sounded superb, giving Korngold’s rich, late romantic score the big warm hug it deserves. The company has imported a well-traveled production from Willy Decker that debuted in Vienna and also appeared at the Salzburg Festival. It looks great and has a decidedly psychological bent which works well in this opera which is equal parts Vertigo and Mulholland Drive. Decker’s vision of Paul’s internal world is predominated by ghostly floating images of the dead and floors, walls and ceilings that are warped out of perspective. Marietta and Paul play cat and mouse throughout Act II in a surreal counterpoint to Tristan und Isolde as houses float by and entire sets appear suddenly from the rear of the stage. If there is any real problem with the staging, it’s that it is still quite literal; the dream sequences in the opera are clearly demarcated as such. The real power of Korngold’s work comes when neither Paul, nor the audience, are completely sure about what is real or what is imagined until the very end. Decker makes sure there are always psychological guideposts nearby for all parties. Of course, with the way in which the company slams the multiple large mobile set pieces around throughout the evening it’s hard to avoid snapping back to reality.

The casting here is only partially successful. Paul is performed by Torsten Kerl who's had a decidedly rising profile in the United States over the last few years. After initially seeming underpowered, he unraveled a little into Act III. This provided an ironic complement to Emily Magee’s Marie who was incredibly pitchy throughout Act I and stabilized for about 20 minutes before Kerl lost it—like two vocal trains passing in the night. With the exception of the handsome Lucas Meachem who sang the roles of Frank and Fritz, the rest of the cast was easily overwhelmed by the orchestra throughout, making for a rather unbalanced affair musically. Still, Die Tote Stadt is not a work you get to hear every day, which is a shame given how beautiful it is. As there are so many charming things about this production overall, take this excellent opportunity to see it in its current run through October 12.


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