REVIEW: Die Tote Stadt at Bard, and Leon Botstein’s Korngold Project

Clay Hilley, Kirsten Harvey, and Sara Jakubiak in Die Tote Stadt at Bard. (Photo by Stephanie Berger)

Sometimes, conventional wisdom is right. There’s general consensus that Erich Wolfgang Korngold is one of the greatest film composers in history; but that his “classical” compositions (a term I hate, but of course what I mean here is music meant for the concert hall; also, opera) are problematic at best.

The first of these beliefs is pretty much indisputable. As for the second… despite Leon Botstein’s vociferous advocacy on Korngold’s behalf in a festival devoted to his work across a wide spectrum, two of three programs I saw tended to confirm, rather than contradict, Korngold’s limitations.

For Parterre Box, I’ve already written about a concert which centered on Korngold’s bombastic, imaginatively orchestrated, but mostly empty symphony. I don’t have much to add to that review (which you can read here), except to say that the presence of Strauss’s Vier Letzte Lieder on the same program threw into brilliantly harsh light the difference between pretension and achievement.

The spectral sense of Strauss, which haunted me during that concert, similarly colored my experience of Korngold’s opera, Das Wunder der Heliane, which received its American premiere here, with Botstein on the podium. The mythical opera includes a long trial scene… but for me, the entire work was largely an even longer trial.

Das Wunder der Heliane at Bard. (Photo by Stephanie Berger)

It’s hard not to think of Strauss and Hofmannsthal during this work, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Die Frau Ohne Schatten—still more to Die Ägyptische Helena, which premiered in 1928, less than a year after Heliane. All three are murky, and laden with symbolism.

But Korngold’s librettist here—Hans Müller-Einigen—is no Hofmannsthal, whose works, even when difficult, are often brilliant, and profoundly linked to the crumbling world in which he existed. By contrast, Heliane is bloated, and rarely comes to any kind of dramatic life. Melodically too, though the composer manages some ravishing passages and as always is a master of orchestral color, more often it seems like a lot of musical foreplay without orgasm.

Soprano Auširine Stundyte (Heliane) has an interestingly individual timbre and is a compelling presence, but her singing was very uneven: well-managed phrases were heard alongside botched ones. That put her well ahead of tenor Daniel Brenna, who mostly yelled. (“The Stranger”—yes, that’s his name—is an ungrateful role, but still). Mezzo Jennifer Feinstein (The Messenger) stole the show vocally and dramatically, and there was fine work by an ensemble that included noted baritone Nathan Berg and tenor Richard Troxell.

Christian Räth’s modular staging was generally effective. And Botstein, the excellent American Symphony Orchestra, and the Bard Festival Chorus did fine work. But it’s hard to imagine that Wunder der Heliane will find new life in the theater. I’m more inclined to think its American premiere might also be its farewell.

And then came Die Tote Stadt, which proved to be quite a different story.

In some ways, it always was. Never a repertory staple, it nonetheless managed to take hold, at least in a minor way. In my youth,  living in then opera-barren Los Angeles, I still managed to see it twice, both times in exceptional performances: New York City Opera on tour, with Carol Neblett, John Alexander, and Dominic Cossa (1975); and the visiting Deutsche Oper Berlin, with Karan Armstrong, James King, and Lenus Carlson (1985). As productions (by Frank Corsaro and Götz Friedrich, respectively) as well as for the individual contributions (Alexander and King especially) both were mesmerizing.

Yet, even for this work, which certainly is Korngold’s best known “classical”piece, conventional wisdom has been against it. It’s often dismissed as a two-tune opera: Marietta’s Lied, a ravishingly beautiful duet often reshaped as a solo for recordings (try Pilar Lorengar’s); and Pierrot’s Tanzlied, which among other things, was a favorite Thomas Hampson encore.

The rest of Tote Stadt is often dismissed as perfervid and shallow. Martin Bernheimer, in his Los Angeles Times’ reviews of both the productions I saw, was very dismissive of Korngold’s opus (which, by the way, has a pseudonymous libretto actually written by Korngold himself, with his father).

And that is where—in a thrillingly impulsive performance at Bard—conventional wisdom about Tote Stadt turned out to be mostly wrong.

OK, it’s fair to say that—certainly if we’re using Hofmannsthal as a comparison—the libretto is very sentimental, and free of intellectual rigor.

But on the whole, over three not-short acts, Tote Stadt, seen here in a lean but imaginative semi-staging by director Jordan Fein, was compelling throughout, finally validating the composer’s classical music writing to a level equal with his best film scores.

In fact, the irony here was that the two famous excerpts did not emerge as the score’s only highlights. Botstein took both at a faster clip than one usually hears (there was some audience grumbling at intermission), and neither soprano Sara Jakubiak nor baritone Alexander Elliott had quite the magical float that one wants in this music, though both—she especially—were terrific in the larger context.

To me, what Botstein achieved here instead was to weave both arias effectively into the texture of the entire work. This was, in part, an evening of exceptional solo turns. In addition to Jakubiak and Elliott, there was another marvelous character cameo by Troxell, and a number of supporting singers made strong impressions. (Actually, there was no weak link in the cast.)

I wager that many will remember this Tote Stadt particularly for Clay Hilley’s superb performance of Paul, the principal tenor role. Hilley brought a glowing, seemingly untiring tenor to a dauntingly difficult role—heard here, he is the most promising tenor for this repertoire since Ben Heppner.

Yet the even bigger triumph was the work itself. If Botstein’s aim was to reclaim Korngold’s status as major classical composer, the festival’s final concert was certainly the charm.

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