Fine Performance of Korngold’s Dreamlike Die Tote Stadt at Bard

Bard Summerscape, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.; August 18, 2019—For almost 20 years now, Bard College, at Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, has been presenting, under music director Leon Botstein, important operas outside of the familiar repertory of the major opera companies. Works by Chabrier, Smyth, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, Blitzstein, Zemlinsky, and others have met with audience and critical approval.

Bard’s Summerscape 2019, concentrating on the work of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, has just reached its conclusion. The composer’s place in history, life, and times were discussed; his film scores, symphonic and chamber works, and two of his operas were performed. His 1927 Das Wunder das Heliane was given five sold-out performances a few weeks back, and its surreal grandeur came close to overwhelming audiences. On Sunday, the 18th, Korngold’s better-known Die Tote Stadt was given in a single semi-staged performance. Not having been seen in New York since the days of the lamented New York City Opera, it too was sold out. And Maestro Botstein and The Orchestra Now made a fine case for the opera’s revival.

Despite being billed as a concert performance, there was action and mise en scene by designer Stephan Moravski and director Jordan Fein, and the effect was striking. The stage was set up like a symphony orchestra with risers furnished with music stands, chairs, and a conductor’s podium. But they were all-white, all a ghostly white, ideal of this tale of loss and dreams.

The plot revolves around Paul, whose wife, Marie, has recently died; bereft, he has set up part of his home as a shrine. Then he meets Marietta, a performer with a local troupe, and her resemblance to Marie staggers him. They begin an affair and he often loses the reality of which woman is which. In the end, he strangles her with Marie’s braid, which he has kept as a keepsake. The indistinct worlds of Bruges and Paul’s mind and home were spookily reflected in the seemingly-abandoned orchestral arrangement. The moody lighting by Mark Burton added to the effect. Fein added a woman in white, clearly the ghost of Marie, who loomed over the proceedings. Her presence had no points to make other than the obvious.

The performance was blessed with fine singing. The brutal, long, and very high role of Paul was sung by Clay Hilley, a bear of a man who nonetheless conveyed Paul’s passionate confusion and vulnerability. His voice is of Wagnerian proportions, utterly even throughout his range, with a bright sheen and ringing top.

Bard was equally lucky to find Sara Jakubiak to sing Marie/Marietta (a role she has recorded which is available on the Naxos label); she filled in for a previously announced soprano on one day’s notice. Her fine, straightforward soprano filled the house, her expressive range in the complex role thoroughly satisfying. Taking double duty as Paul’s friend Frank, and Fritz, a member of Marietta’s players, baritone Alexander Birch Elliott used his fine, burnished sound with energy and musicality, and mezzo Deborah Nansttel impressed as Paul’s housekeeper, Brigitta.

Conductor Leon Botstein is excellent with big-boned Romanticism, and so he was here. Korngold’s rich orchestration proved a feast for the players; the composer’s occasional fondness for scoring the highest sounds—celesta—with the lowest—double bass—came off as wonderfully eerie. Whether out of consideration for the singers or some other reason, Marietta’s Lied—the one really big melody in the opera—was led rather too quickly, but its impact still was not lost. James Bagwell’s chorus was beautifully trained. Anyone experiencing this performance would have to wonder why Die Tote Stadt is not more of a repertory opera.