In addition to presenting high quality renditions of old favorites like Carmen, La bohème or Don Giovanni, great opera companies also take artistic risks by presenting audiences with new or unfamiliar works. The Dallas Opera deserves props for bringing not one, but two rarely performed operas to the stage in its 2013/2014 season. A recent production of Tod Machover's 2010 opera Death and the Powers brought contemporary music with a technological twist to the stage. The company's current production of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Die tote Stadt highlights music that, while composed nearly a century ago, has rarely been performed in the United States, and therefore is still "new" to most in the audience.
The Dallas Opera made a good choice when it chose to stage Die tote Stadt, a dark psychological thriller that follows the mental and emotional meltdown of the lead character (Paul) in the wake of his beloved wife's death. Dramatically, the lines between reality and mental hallucination become increasingly blurred as the opera progresses, pulling you into Paul's dark, obsessive world with disturbing effect. Korngold's music swells with complex, intoxicating harmonies and sumptuous orchestration. It's a great opera with fantastic music and a compelling storyline that is worth getting to know.
Die tote Stadt is also a tremendously difficult work to pull off successfully. The music itself is challenging for the orchestra and singers. The tenor (Paul) and the soprano who plays opposite him as both his wife and new love interest (Marie and Marietta respectively) have roles that require a great deal of powerful, big, loud singing over a massive orchestra. They are also responsible for the bulk of the acting on stage.
On opening night, Texas-born tenor Jay Hunter Morris played a satisfyingly tortured Paul and gave increasingly effective "crazy eyes" as the opera progressed. He twitched as his obsession with his dead wife (and the young woman who resembles her) became more and more intense. Soproano Mardi Byers was most convincing as a the taunting, teasing Marietta in the final act, but her acting lacked emotional range. Most disappointing, there was little to no chemistry between the two leads. They seemed to be acting at one another rather than playing off of each other. This made their scenes together -- an enormous part of this opera -- emotionally unsatisfying.
Vocally, Morris gave the most musically thoughtful performance of the two leads. The nuances of his phrasing were sometimes covered up by a loud orchestra and his rich tone seemed strained throughout the night. Byers' voice was powerful, but at least on Friday lacked finesse and musical shape, as if she was just barreling her way through the role, bullying each phrase into bland submission.
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The "extras" in this production shone, especially Weston Hurt as Paul's well-intentioned friend Frank. His voice was consistently on pitch and warm and his presence on stage was natural and not overplayed. Mezzo-soprano Katharine Tier was an equally strong presence on stage as Paul's faithful, pious servant.
Under the flailing baton of German conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing the orchestra sounded heavy-handed. He pushed them through the music with rhythmic drive, but too often the ensemble overpowered the singers.
Stage director and scenic designer Mikael Melbye put together a minimalistic production. The set was the same for all three acts -- a large, grey room that served as both Paul's house and a screen for projections. Video designer Wendall Harrington's hauntingly beautiful projections brought life to both the set and the acting.
In subsequent performances, this production may prove more successful than it did on Friday. No matter how difficult, music and theater need to come across as somewhat effortless in performance, and this was not the case on Friday. It was hard to get past too many botched high notes from both lead singers and orchestra, which, unfortunately, made it difficult to emotionally connect with the work. Unfortunately, when it is apparent that musicians and singers are struggling, audiences often will, too.