Cher Public

In Bruges

They say that Boston, despite many cultural distinctions, ain’t no opera town, and for some decades—generations?—this has been true. But tides of change will break, even on the shores of the Hub. There is a baroque opera revival, spawned by the Boston Early Music Festival (a Monteverdi trilogy arriving next spring) and leading to hi-jinks at the region’s many schools, and to Boston Baroque, which gives Handel’s Agrippina in April. The somewhat traditional Boston Lyric Opera presents everything from Lizzie Borden (last month) to La Traviata (next month), though confining itself to three or four productions a year.

Then there’s a lively newcomer, Odyssey Opera, which debuted last year with Rienzi to celebrate the Wagner bicentennial. Last Saturday night, Odyssey gave Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s best-known opera, Die tote Stadt, in the New England Conservatory’s lovely, 800-seat Jordan Hall, and sold the place out. A very impressive cast sang and acted the concert with brief (mezzanined) contributions from the New World Chorale and the Boston Youth Chorus.  

The Odyssey Opera Orchestra, led by the company’s chief, Gil Rose, handled the score’s gaudy melodies and high-octane outbursts elegantly. Rose’s conducting was taut, lively, fragrant with yearning and (in the final scene) a traditional carillon piety for Bruges, a dead but festive city. Rose led The Nose, Cardillac and Powder Her Face for the late lamented Opera Boston, and proposes a Dominick Argento double-bill and a Jake Heggie premiere for Odyssey before the end of this year. He has just the sort of vital spark a brash young opera company requires.

Die tote Stadt, on recording or in the famous Frank Corsaro production at the New York City Opera (a hit, often revived), never gave me as much pleasure as did this concert reading. The work has always seemed incoherent, murky. I’m not sure whether the problem was that my youthful taste had not absorbed the lush Great War era to which Korngold’s operas belong or if the City Opera presentations were undercast and undersung. They may even have been unpersuasively conducted, by Christopher Keene or George Manahan—though I much enjoyed the latter romanticism in Strauss’s Intermezzo and Daphne. In Tote Stadt, my attention may have been distracted by the cluttered interactions of the singers among Corsaro’s projected slides of the cityscapes of Bruges.

In any case, the Odyssey performance, with the orchestra and the singers at stage center, made a far more convincing case for Korngold’s work. How Maestro Rose managed to obtain so able a cast I do not know, but his Tote Stadt was full of intense, passionate sung and acted performances, fully equal to the score’s crazy demands, rarely drowned by full-blast climaxes.

Jay Hunter Morris sang Paul, the neurotic widower at the heart of the story, avatar of the decaying city of Bruges, brooding over the death of his adored wife, Marie, as the city, subsiding into swampy canals, broods on its lost prosperity. Paul may or may not engage in a homicidal affair with a saucy ballet dancer, Marietta, who bears a superficial resemblance to Marie. The setting is a morbid household “altar” to Marie, complete with portrait, and a plait of her golden hair is both a keepsake and a likely garrote. Much of the action takes place in Paul’s neurasthenic imagination, and his happy catharsis does not entirely convince. The novel that is the source of the story ended less happily—indeed, it was to inspire Alfred Hitchcock’s operatic Vertigo.

Paul is easily undercast, as I suspect he was at NYCO. He sings at widely varying dynamics thought (in 1920) to imply neurosis: lyrical outpourings, haunted asides, nervous rages. The music demands a heldentenor with strong acting chops, and Morris, who recently sang it in a staging in Dallas, was the right man. His words were not only impeccably pronounced but shaded to enhance the extremes of a volatile character. Sound poured forth in the ecstatic post-coital duet that opens Act III, then turned credibly murderous in a style familiar from Bartók’s Bluebeard and Schönberg’s Erwartung. The frenzies visible in Morris’s facial contortions were also audible in his growls and whispers.

Korngold was merciless to his minor characters. They may be figments of Paul’s imagination, but they have to sing their few phrases over full orchestra. Erica Brookyhyser, as Paul’s faithful old housekeeper, wore housekeeper brown, but this did not disguise the glamour of her smooth, sizable mezzo. Weston Hurt was effective as Paul’s friend (or rival) Frank. The troupe of actors who twit Paul’s jealousy by arousing Marietta’s erotic imagination were all fine, especially Alan Schneider (Count Albert), who demonstrated a real Strauss-tenor ring, and baritone Thomas Meglioranza (Fritz), his scene-stealing little serenade delectably seductive.

The weakest voice in this very strong cast belonged to Meagan Miller, the Marietta and Marie. Miller, who sang Danaë at Bard and made her Met debut last year as the Kaiserin, has the soaring top that Strauss—and Korngold—demand. She is a winning actress and a handsome blonde in the brash, forthright style of strapping Maria Jeritza, Korngold’s favorite (and the Met’s only) Marietta. But her voice edges towards an intrusive beat when pushed, and while her hoyden flirtiness was in the right Viennese style, her attempt to change mood to Marie’s solemn voice-from-the-grave proved awkward and nearly inaudible. I’d call her a work in progress, needing polish.

Photo: Kathy Wittman

  • phoenix

    Thanks Yohalem, always generous with detail.

  • Krunoslav

    In large part I agree, though I liked Morris less ( lots of pitch problems, clear pronunciation but USA vowels) and Miller rather more, despite some of what you mention.

    Frank Kelley’s hairthing (pictured) merited separate billing.

  • manou

    Isn’t Vertigo based on D’entre les Morts by Boileau-Narcejac (in fact so loosely based that they successfully sued him for not sticking to their original story)?

    Tote Stadt is based on Bruges la Morte, by Georges Rodenbach.

  • guy pacifica

    Worth noting in the overview of upcoming Boston opera performances is the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s concert performance of King Roger on March 7 with Charles Dutoit at the baton and Mariusz Kwiecien in the title role.

  • Will

    Let me add a few points to John’s excellent review and one of the comments. There is a connection between Bruges-la-Morte and Vertigo; there was a fascinating article in Opera news last spring that documented the connection. Tote Stadt was apparently a great favorite of Hitchcock’s. But the program not from the Boston performance digs deeper. Rodenbach adapted his 1892 novel into the symbolist stage play Le Mirage from which the opera was developed. The story was further adapted into Boileau-Narcjac’s crime novel D’entre les morts, which Hitchcock then filmed. There are twists and turns, but the descent from Rodenbach to Hitchcock is certainly there.

    To John’s review I would like to add an enlarged appreciation of the orchestra that played the opalescent score so magnificently. Boston has a musician pool that is not only very wide but very deep in terms of talent and achievement. Gil Rose, founder of the Boston Modern Orchestra Project and music director of Opera Boston, then founded Odyssey Opera when OB suddenly shut down. He is also music director for Monadnock Music and its summer festival. He has the pick of great musicians and the performance level of all his ensembles is extremely high. Within Jordan Hall’s warm, clear and brilliant acoustics the score was overwhelming. There were a lot of microphones — perhaps a recording will be released (Gil also founded a label for BMOP’s performances).

  • vilbastarda

    Thanks for the review. Let’s hope that Boston becomes a major opera city soon.

    I wonder though if Jordan Hall has very different acoustics depending on the seat. This is the second review that I read that praises Morris, and is so-so towards Miller. One other review was praising Miller, and was so-so on Morris, and one was raving about both equally. I sat balcony center, and I found Meagan Miller’s voice smooth and creamy, and huge (from my seat she was never inaudible, or covered by the orchestra), while Morris was edgy and strained, and inaudible at times. I was actually very impressed with Miller, with her stamina (no sign of vocal fatigue after 3 h of brutal music to sing), acting chops (even in concert), and gorgeousness of the voice. Morris was almost painful to watch, especially in the first act (he warmed up after that), and he was visibly struggling, at least from my balcony seat, and he was covered one too many times by the orchestra. And while the orchestra sounded great, and with sensibility to the music, I found Gil Rose being a little unsympathetic to the singers, going for too big of a sound most of the time. My 2 cents.

  • Henry Holland

    Paul is easily undercast, as I suspect he was at NYCO

    Well, no. There’s a pirate recording of the 1975 production and John Alexander is incredible. He, of course, was in a bit fresher voice in 1967 on the recording from the Wien Volksoper.

    John Horton Murray was excellent as Paul in the 2001 revival I went to, he had no trouble being heard and was in good voice at the end as well.

    He starts out a bit rough, but Klaus Florian Vogt is terrific on this live recording from Frankfurt:

    Since James Conlon renewed his contract with the Los Angeles Opera until 2018, maybe he’ll finally get around to doing Die Tote Stadt, which was promised as part of the Recovered Voices project.

    • ML

      I remember Die Tote Stadt at the Dorothy Buffum years back, when Hollreiser conducted Karan Armstrong and, I believe, James King!

      • ML


      • Henry Holland

        [shakes fist at ML for hearing DTS at the Dot]

        It’s a pity that James King just sings the notes and doesn’t even begin to bother with the words in the filmed Deutsche Oper production, he certainly has the voice. He just sang the notes in the one role I heard him live in (Captain Vere at the Met in 1989). Alas.

        • Vere is an odd role for an aging heldentenor…

  • aulus agerius

    “Paul is easily undercast, as I suspect he was at NYCO”

    Perhaps she meant the more recent one in 2005 or so. That Paul was someone named Chamanday or something like that. Also Susan Anthony and Keith Phares in the cast. I enjoyed it very much. I have a recording of it.

    • Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin

      Dan Chamandy -- a Canadian tenor who was an ensemble member of Tiroler Landestheater (Innsbruck) under Brigitte Fassbaender’s direction for many years. I believe he is now with the company in Giessen.

  • I’d love to hear K.A. Vogt as Paul. His Lohengrin at the Met was magical, the finest singing of the role in my experience.

    • Bill

      Vogt was superb as Paul in Vienna a couple of
      years ago -- very audible, splendidly acted,
      absolutely no problem with the tessitura -- quite super in the role. Angela Denoke was also very]
      impressive, alluring to the eye and to the ear.
      Plus the Vienna Philharmonic played sumptiously.
      A great performance of the opera in a felicitous
      production (taken over from Salzburg).

    • Henry Holland

      Hans Lick, if you’re anywhere near Hamburg in March/April 2015, Vogt is singing Paul in a new production to be conducted by Simone Young: