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Korngold's Mawkish Murk : Berliners Stage 'Die Tote Stadt' At Pavilion

September 12, 1985|MARTIN BERNHEIMER | Times Music Critic

There was a time, say 45 years ago, when Erich Wolfgang Korngold's "Die Tote Stadt" caused collective hearts to go pitter-pat in opera houses all over the world.

Glamorous sopranos such as Maria Jeritza and Lotte Lehmann made much of the opportunity to luxuriate in the pretty decay of romantic gush. They got to play two grateful roles: saint and , more interesting, sinner. They got to sing a big, sweet and wonderfully sentimental hit song, Marietta's Lautenlied. They got the rare privilege of strutting and kicking through a veilish dance of seduction, and they got to savor the dual pleasures of a death scene and a happy-end resurrection.

Matinee idol tenors such as Karl Oestwig and Richard Tauber withstood with poignant honor the pains, sorrows, masochistic indulgences and hysterical outbursts of Paul, the hero with a heart of mush who is torn between the joys of necrophilia, simple lust and spiritual transfiguration.

The young Korngold--he was 23 when the premiere took place in 1920--knew how to write an opera for the audience of his time. It made much of grandiose, overblown, big-band kitsch in the manner of Richard Strauss, with additional bows to Puccini, Wagner, Debussy and Lehar. It borrowed knowingly from recent musical, literary and theatrical fads. It dabbled freely and modishly in amorous exorcism, surface eroticism, post-card piety, boulevard psychology, soapy surrealism and Grand Guignol grotesquerie.

Hiding behind the nom de plume of Paul Schott, Korngold and his illustrious father fashioned a libretto--based loosely on Rodenbach's "Bruges la Morte"--that lent new depths of meaning to such words as mawkish and maudlin.

No one regarded "Die Tote Stadt" as a masterpiece of art. But the opera did enjoy considerable esteem, for a while, as a masterpiece of junk. Then it disappeared, attaining the oblivion it probably deserved.

In the 1950s, Munich and Vienna (the Volksoper) attempted unsuccessful revivals. A decade ago, resuscitation was attempted by the New York City Opera, and a complete recording followed. This time, the work stimulated fleeting fascination as a period curio. It also provided an interesting vehicle for the soprano Carol Neblett and for the director Frank Corsaro. In the short run, however, that wasn't enough.

Los Angeles saw "Die Tote Stadt" in 1975 and, like the rest of western civilization, remained underwhelmed. But sometimes one can't keep a bad work down. Tuesday night at a less-than-full Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Korngold's wet little musico-dramatic dream returned, courtesy of the mighty Deutsche Oper of West Berlin.

The work seemed as nasty, as trivial, as silly, as sticky and as quaint as memory insisted. The performance, however, was terrific.

Goetz Friedrich has staged the piece stylishly and affectingly, as if it represented a prime example of valid, modern musical theater. He has taken a few liberties--instead of having the hero exit cheerily, for instance, as the composer intended, the director leaves the melancholy Paul ominously fondling a revolver. In this instance, the change may be an improvement.

Friedrich is a past master at character motivation, at the exposure of telling detail and at the projection of definitive moods. He plays out the sordid drama with canny use of all the bizarre tricks of his noble trade, blurs the line separating the real from the fantastic artfully. He may be accused sometimes of hyper-intellectualization and exaggeration, in the grand old German manner, but he invariably knows what he is doing and does it with conviction.

Andreas Reinhardt has provided Gothic-gloomy, faintly expressionistic sets that frame the plot sensitively--and that happen to include a real, steamy river on stage in Act II. Unfortunately, the water was not visible from a seat at the center of Row J downstairs. Margit Bardy's slick costumes update the action somewhat from the turn-of-the-century milieu dictated by the libretto, with no damage to the inherent illogic.

Karan Armstrong's last operatic assignment in Los Angeles found her portraying a stock-soubrette Rosina at the Greek Theatre in 1972. Since then she has become something of a specialist in flamboyantly neurotic heroines in German opera. She also has become Mrs. Goetz Friedrich.

Dominating a virtually all-American cast, she plays Marie/Marietta with tremendous vitality, with admirable focus, and with ample sexual abandon. She sings with unfailing intelligence, even with pathos. One might wish for a bigger, steadier, more sensual sound, but her total commitment to the difficult challenge makes such reservations seem nearly irrelevant.

James King endures the impossible vocal marathon of Paul with remarkable force, freshness, intensity and dignity. His stamina flags a bit at the end, but that would be pardonable in a 30-year-old tenor. King, believe it or not, has just turned 60.

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