San Francisco Opera’s ’Die Tote Stadt’

To live and die in Bruges

Bruges is where the young couple, Paul and Marie, lived and walked during their short and happy life together. Once Marie dies, her spouse’s grief overwhelms him, not merely his life but also their apartment, the city—its canals and streets—transforming into “the dead city” of Die Tote Stadt.

The opera, composed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold to a libretto by the composer and his father, takes this psychological phenomenon—an individual’s projection of extreme emotion into the surrounding real world—and fashions art, building a world that reflects the protagonist’s dreams and materialized feelings. The work, like the psychosis, is magnificent and grotesque, exquisite in its insights, and fundamentally sympathetic and humane.

And this co-production, which originated in Europe and opened at the War Memorial Opera House this past Tuesday, is apt and beautifully realized. When the curtain goes up, Paul is sitting in his barren apartment. The walls are black, with barely legible writing layered like pale shadows at their summit, the ceiling high above supported by an elaborate crown moulding, the tall, elaborately framed door suggesting a challenging access to the outside. Far from the door, stands a huge picture of a woman’s face; smaller canvases of the same face are propped here and there; roses are scattered on the floor.

Into this stark setting comes Marietta, a woman Paul has met on the street and, compelled by her resemblance to his dead wife, invited to visit. He wants her to be like his wife, but she is a dancer, flirtatious and earthy, who embodies life rather than some frozen ideal of love. The two clash, and she leaves. Paul collapses into a chair.

What happens next has to be seen to be believed. Both ceiling and floor buckle, realigning askew to the room’s rectilinear walls. The back wall dissolves, revealing a double of the room in which Paul sleeps. In this mirroring room, Paul’s sleeping doppelganger is awakened by his golden-haired wife, who asserts that their love is forever—past, present and future.

A series of increasingly bizarre events follows with dreamlike logic: Marietta returns with a retinue of white-clad singers and actors to perform a small gem of satiric theater within theater. In their midst, Pierrot sings a gorgeous lament of love. A religious parade passes bearing Marie’s red-gold tresses in a glass reliquary. Finally, Marietta challenges the dead woman’s memory, confronting Paul’s cult of death with the vitality of her desire.

A tidal wave of sound

Even though Die Tote Stadt was premiered when Korngold was 23 years old—a fact I still can’t wrap my brain around—the score reveals much of his future as a film composer. There are large full sweeps of sound with strong emotive tone and undeniable kinesthesis. But there is something Strausslike as well: delicate filigrees of notes from the celesta or a sudden run of strings and harp that breaks loose from the atmospheric whole. Donald Runnicles showed the orchestra and the music at its best.

The singing was superb and appallingly difficult. As Paul, tenor Thorsten Kerl not only had to be on stage for most of the two and a half hours, but also had to sing for a good portion of that time, throwing out achingly high notes over and over. Soprano Emily Magee scaled Marietta’s part, set in a Himalayan-high tessitura. Though both singers had some difficult moments in the first 15 minutes, they got better and better, richer and warmer, as the opera went on.

Paul’s housekeeper, Brigitta, and his friend, Franz, were splendidly sung by mezzo-soprano Katharine Tier and baritone Lucas Meacham, both products—present and past—of the Merola and Adler Fellowship programs. Meacham also sings Pierrot’s Tanzlied in the dream cabaret scene. Other Adler Fellows shone brightly in the cabaret sequence: sopranos Ji Young Yang and Daniela Mack, tenors Andrew Bidlack and Alek Schrader.

—Jaime Robles

A version of the article first appeared in the Piedmont Post