Not Much Depth To 'Die Tote Stadt'

Though Michael Hayes and Kara Shay Thomson are strong leads, something's missing in the rest of Summer Opera Theatre Company's "Die Tote Stadt."
Though Michael Hayes and Kara Shay Thomson are strong leads, something's missing in the rest of Summer Opera Theatre Company's "Die Tote Stadt." (Scavone Photography)
By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 16, 2008

A child prodigy seeks to realize his potential, writes an acclaimed opera, and ends up as one of Hollywood's most successful composers. This is not the plot, but the back story to Erich Wolfgang Korngold's "Die Tote Stadt," which opened the Summer Opera Theatre Company's 30th season at Catholic University's Hartke Theatre on Saturday night.

"Die Tote Stadt" has tended to attract more attention for its history than as a work. It is occasionally produced, but best known for its knockout soprano aria (which turns into a soprano-tenor duet) in Act I, and for its status as the most significant serious score of a career that never quite lived up to its promise, at least in the classical arena. Film music fans could justly protest: Korngold was virtually responsible for the development of the film score as a serious form of musical expression, writing the music for "Captain Blood," "Robin Hood," and "The Sea Hawk," among others. But his so-called serious music is seldom performed, with the exception of "Die Tote Stadt."

One reason the opera is not revived more is that it is a profoundly difficult piece of music: Straussian in scale, calling for a huge orchestra and two lead singers with Wagnerian stamina. Nor is it entirely convincing as music drama. True, there is love, death, and murder: Paul, obsessed with his dead wife Marie, falls for a woman who looks just like her, a showgirl who leads him on, has an affair with his best friend, and ends up dead, Paul having strangled her with Marie's braid. Then -- here is the dramatic flaw -- Paul wakes up. It was all a dream. This kind of ending used to be forbidden in grade-school compositions, and although it is handled slightly better than one might think -- the dream has been Paul's way of coming to terms with his wife's death -- it is still less than satisfactory. (The libretto was written by Korngold's doting father, Julius, a leading music critic. What do they know?)

The music is prodigal indeed: a gorgeous Straussian swamp of lush sound which Korngold seemed able to produce with almost too much fluency so that it sometimes seems more a pose than an expression of deep feeling. It was a lot for the Student Orchestral Institute under Mark Graf to handle, though they tackled it manfully and Graf kept the lines flowing.

It is also a lot for any singer to handle; the company gets points for finding two leads who could actually sing the murderous leading roles. Michael Hayes has a strong, grainy voice and is able to keep pumping out sound with a certain amount of elegance; Kara Shay Thomson, a Straussian soprano with that quality of silver that can sometimes be a little metallic, sometimes shining. As Paul's best friend, Frank, Mark Whatley presented a nice light baritone, though when he returned as Pierrot in the dream of Act 2, he wasn't quite up to that character's beautiful aria, another high point of the score. Alexandra Christoforakis is a good singer but without the heft needed to cut through the orchestra as Paul's loyal maid, Brigitta.

The opera was directed by Elaine R. Walter, the company's founder and longtime general manager and artistic director; it was billed as her professional debut, although she has directed a number of student productions for Catholic University. Her production here represented small-company routine: It got the job done without focusing on enough telling details to keep the big emotions from seeming more than approximate, something indicated by the tendency of the singers to sway back and forth when they sing.

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