Opera Colorado presents beautifully conceived production

Korngold’s rarely performed Die tote Stadt soars

By Peter Alexander February 26 at 11 p.m.

Opera Colorado opened their new production of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Die tote Stadt under difficult circumstances Saturday (Feb. 26): last- minute vocal paralysis of the star soprano, Sara Gartland.

Her indisposition was capably overcome with the help of dramatic soprano Kara Shay Thomson and some artful directorial sleight-of-hand. Thomson, who didn’t have time to learn the staging but knew the music, sang from the pit while Gartland acted the role onstage.

Die tote Stadt: Act II scene rendering by Robert Perdziola

Korngold wrote Die tote Stadt in 1920, when he was only 23, and later went on to write hugely successful Hollywood film scores, winning two Academy Awards. Unsurprisingly, the score of Tote Stadt has an expressive immediacy that connects with audiences.

The opera, too long neglected, soared in a beautifully designed and conceived production that featured a generally strong cast. Conductor Ari Pelto kept things well under control. He and the orchestra seemed comfortable with Korngold’s cinematic and emotionally descriptive style.

Robert Perdziola’s beautiful and evocative designs colorfully combined the interior of protagonist Paul’s apartment and a replica the O.L.V.-Kerk (Church of Our Lady) church tower in Bruges, Belgium, the symbolically “dead city” of the opera’s title. A large scrim at the back allowed for spectral appearances from his fantasies, including his beloved late wife Marie and a procession of nuns that appear during his fevered dreams.

Jonathan Burton (Paul) and Sara Gartland (Marietta/Marie). Photo courtesy of Opera Colorado

This unit set served all three acts effectively, with plenty of room for the scene to shift from Paul’s artist’s studio to the canals of Bruges. A boat with dancers and commedia dell’arte characters and the procession of nuns parade in and out of the scene, as they do through Paul’s nightmares.

With a ringing sound and a secure top, tenor Jonathan Burton was effective in the long and difficult role of Jonathan, a young artist who suffers delusions that Marie has returned to life. His belief that the dancer Marietta is Marie reincarnated is the dramatic crux of the opera and places Paul at the emotional center. The Heldentenor demands of the part stressed his voice by the end, although the resigned reflection of his final scene came through affectingly.

He was a better singer than actor; the intensity of his role, as Paul spins into madness, came through more potently in his singing than his movements or posture. That may be why a moment that should be chilling—when a maddened Paul dreams that he has strangled Marietta and, imagining the corpse at his feet, sings “now she is exactly like Marie”—elicited out-of-place laughter from the audience.

Kara Shay Thomson. Photo by Devon Cass

Singing as Maria/Marietta, Kara Shay Thomson was at a disadvantage standing in a corner of the pit. Neither elevated above the orchestra nor singing out toward the audience, she was not always clearly audible. If the words were sometimes muffled, she sang the role with confidence and solid sound, ascending comfortably to the highest reaches of the part.

The vocally indisposed Sara Gartland was the very image of the dancer Marietta. She moved comfortably about the stage, and her emotions were often visible in her posture. It is difficult to maintain the intensity of a role when only mouthing the words, and she did not always succeed, but her dance scene in Act II was effective.

Baritone Daniel Belcher has a bright, steely voice well suited to his part as Frank, Paul’s friend. He ably conveyed Frank’s stability and groundedness in dealing with Paul’s delusions. As Brigitte, Paul’s housekeeper, Elizabeth Bishop’s warm, plush voice helped shape her role as a caretaker. She had the best diction of the cast; otherwise you would have had difficulty relying on the German text to follow the story. Young tenor Jonathan Johnson made a solid impression as Viktorin, director of Marietta’s dance company.

Stage direction by Chas Rader-Shieber served the story. The large stage area never looked too wide as the singers interacted. Only when the singing Marietta was in the pit on one side of the stage while the acting Marietta was on the other was there any (unavoidable) awkwardness. 

NOTE: In the second act, Marietta dances a scene with shrouded nuns that might not make sense to modern viewers. This scene comes from a French grand opera, Robert le diable (Robert the devil) by Giacomo Meyerbeer. In that original scene—a third-act ballet that would have been familiar to Korngold’s 1920s audiences—dead nuns rise from their graves to perform a scandalous dance celebrating drinking, gambling and lust. The choice of this scene to fuel Paul’s imagination of Marietta and her company is deliberately provocative and suggests Marietta’s debased character, Paul’s derangement, or both.

Before the curtain, Opera Colorado artistic director Greg Carpenter came onstage to thank the opera company’s board for agreeing to present his “favorite opera.” I join in his appreciation, for being able to see an opera that I had never before seen live, produced on a high professional level.

If you love opera, you should not miss the opportunity to see this engaging, late-Romantic work that is rarely performed in the United States. Three performances remain at Opera Colorado (Feb. 28, Match 3 and March 5; details and tickets HERE).

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Opera Colorado
Die tote Stadt by Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Libretto by Paul Schott (Erich and Julius Korngold)
Ari Pelto, conductor; Chas Rader-Shieber, director

7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 28, and Friday, March 3
2 p.m. Sunday, March 5

Ellie Caulkins Opera House, Denver Performing Arts Complex