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