Composer Erich Korngold’s 1920 “Die tote Stadt” is not an unfamiliar title to opera regulars, though the piece is sparingly performed by American companies. It is hard to say why, really; it is an easy work to listen to and full of the high-level drama that fans of the art form crave.
But it is not Mozart or Puccini and so it does not have the cache that sells tickets easily, and its rarity is enough to fill the “risky” slot that Opera Colorado maintains on its schedule each season among the safer warhorses that sell out the house. The company’s media materials point out that its upcoming presentation will be the only U.S. production of the piece this year.
Audiences may be wary of something they never heard — or, in many cases, never even heard of — but there is no need for fear in the case. Korngold employs well his famous melodic style, a talent he used to spend a good portion of his time writing scores for Hollywood movies as his career progressed. He created the music for early, international classics, like 1935’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and 1938’s “The Adventures of Robin Hood.”
Korngold developed a technique of assigning each character in the movie his or her own musical idiom, or sound, a trait that enhanced character development and an advance in filmmaking that other composers have followed since then.
“He invented the modern film score,” said Chas Rader-Shieber, who is directing the production of “Die tote Stadt” at Denver’s Ellie Caulkins Opera House later this month. “No Korngold, no John Williams.”
Opera Colorado, which is also using the translated title of “The Dead City,” is giving the work the full treatment. Like a lot of opera companies, it often borrows sets, costumes and even singers and directors from other versions of a title that were made by peer companies across the country. The trading of used props is a big part of the opera business.
This production is entirely new. The sets and costumes for the main singers, chorus and dancers were created by Robert Perdziola, probably known best for his work with movement companies like American Ballet Theatre and the San Francisco Ballet. He has worked for opera makers as diverse as the Santa Fe Opera and the Metropolitan Opera.
He and the director have worked together in the past and so they were in synch on this outing, indulging in a dreamy take that keeps Korngold’s music at the center of things but expands the narrative in new ways.
The piece, set in the late 19th century, centers around the character of Paul, who endlessly laments the loss of his late wife Marie, obsessing over a portrait of her he keeps in the house. One day, he meets a performer named Marietta who has a striking resemblance to Marie. Paul transfers his fixation to Marietta, and after a number of Alfred Hitchcock-like twists, ends up perpetrating a violent act against her.
Or does he? In this film noir exercise, some things are real and some happen in the imagination, and so the audience gets to figure out much of the action. But the emotional arc of the story is pretty clear. The presence of Marietta helps Paul move psychologically beyond his loss of Marie.
“It has that theatrical thriller part to it,” said Rader-Shieber. But it is also a very human story of overcoming loss, of “a brain doing stuff to try to figure itself out,” as he puts it.
The story should resonate widely as the world comes out of the pandemic where many people suffered great losses of friends and family, time and progress, the director said.
Rader-Shieber and designer Perdziola took some liberties in developing this particular narrative, the one audiences will see in Denver. The libretto, which was co-written by Korngold and his father, left a lot of blanks in the characters. We do not know much about their backstories.
The creative duo here filled in some gaps. They used Paul’s complex preoccupation with Marie’s portrait to declare him an artist himself. They imagine he painted that portrait and many others, and they turn the setting into an artist’s studio and fill it with multiple pictures of Marie.
Perdziola, who is a painter and whose costume renderings are admired far and wide, actually painted all of the pieces used in the production, Raider-Shieber said. It’s a personal touch that adds a bit of interest to the whole show.
The background should well serve tenor Jonathan Burton, who will sing the part of Paul, and soprano Sara Gartland, who does double duty as both Marietta and Marie, who appears in ghostly reincarnations as part of Paul’s journey. Opera Colorado music director Ari Pelto is set to conduct the performances, which will be sung in German with both English and Spanish subtitles available to opera-goers.
There might be a contemporary edge to the action, but Rader-Shieber promises Korngold will remain the star of the moment. That is good news for audiences who may be hesitant to venture into the unknown but will probably be pleased by a score that is both complicated and a challenge to sing, but also sonically lush and likable.
“I think the music may be tricky, but it is also music that you your want to put in your ear,” he said. “It’s appealing, alluring music.”
IF YOU GO
Opera Colorado will present “Die tote Stadt (The Dead City)” Feb. 25-March 5 at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in the Denver Performing Arts Complex. Tickets and info at 303.468.2030 or operacolorado.org.
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