Calgary Conjures Surreal Isolation Of ‘Die tote Stadt’

David Pomeroy as grieving Paul in 'Die Tote Stadt' Calgary Opera (Trudie Lee)
David Pomeroy as grieving Paul, obsessed with the memory of his dead wife,  in Erich Korngold’s ‘Die Tote Stadt.’
(Calgary Opera production photos by Trudie Lee)
By Bill Rankin

CALGARY, Alberta — Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s 1920 opera Die tote Stadt was so popular initially that companies in Hamburg and Cologne premiered the work on the same evening. After the Second World War, the radical changes in the world of classical composition overtook Korngold’s neo-romantic preferences, and Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) lost its appeal, but it has had a bit of a revival in recent years.

The Metropolitan Opera produced it in 2001, the company’s first staging since a production in the early 1920s. Subsequent productions of the grim tale, of a man’s enervating obsession with the memory of his dead wife, included the first-ever production in Britain, at Covent Garden, just seven years ago. The first Australian production happened in mid-2012, and on Jan. 29, Calgary Opera gave the Canadian premiere at the Southern Jubilee Auditorium. Korngold’s granddaughter, Kathrin Korngold Hubbard, who lives in Portland, Ore., attended the opening performance and participated in a panel discussion.

Paul's dead wife, Marie, comes back to life, or so he thinks, in 'Die tote Stadt.'
Paul’s dead wife, Marie, comes back to life, or so he thinks, in ‘Die tote Stadt.’

Since Bob McPhee took charge of Calgary Opera eighteen years ago, the company has commissioned seven main-stage works and has mounted five Canadian premieres, several of them American operas, including Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking and Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe.  Calgary Opera also co-produced Heggie’s Moby-Dick and presented it in 2012. McPhee slots new work or Canadian premieres in the middle of his three-production season, and his audiences have generally been receptive. The opening-night audience for Die tote Stadt clearly endorsed McPhee’s latest excursion off the beaten path.

The basic set, designed by Scott Reid, was economical, tight, and appropriately claustrophobic, but symbolically evocative. The center of the stage was framed by a series of three black pointed arches, suggesting a teepee over grieving husband Paul’s living room. A portrait of his deceased beloved was situated on an easel, with a couch to the left. Upstage was a bureau that appeared to have several women’s undergarments draping the face of the closed drawers.

Surrounding Paul's quarters are outside images of urban ruin.
Scott Reid’s set shows Paul’s quarters framed by outside decaying urban ruins.

Surrounding the husband’s quarters were scrims upon which images of urban ruins were projected. To the right, a tall, leafy tree stood in front of a perfectly intact office building with windows aglow, suggesting a healthy, “normal” world beyond the dead city of the title. Korngold and his father, Julius, a renowned music critic of his time, adapted the original novel, Bruges-la-morte by Georges Rodenbach, for the libretto, and Reid clearly wanted to maintain a vision of the decaying Bruges, central to the 1892 novel but hardly a significant part of the protagonist’s mental tribulations in the opera.

Conductor Bramwell Tovey
Conductor Bramwell Tovey

Korngold’s score amplifies and anticipates key dramatic moments, foreshadowing impending crises and supporting the singers’ dramatic interactions. The Calgary Philharmonic played its role brilliantly under Bramwell Tovey. Korngold’s score calls for more forces than the Jubilee Auditorium’s pit can accommodate, but Tovey led an ample ensemble of 70 musicians, mostly from the Calgary Philharmonic, with two storage rooms under the stage cleared out to make room for the overflow.

The orchestra never forced the singers to overexert themselves, and some of that success comes from Korngold himself. The lushness or the poignancy of any given musical gesture often acts like a set of brackets, opening and closing a scene rather than intruding into to it as a domineering character in its own right.

Director Kelly Robinson, a Calgary Opera favorite for new productions, controlled every aspect of the shifting narrative artistically and efficiently. The cast featured four top-tier Canadian singers and four members of Calgary Opera’s emerging artists program.

Soprano Lyne Fortin, as Marietta, rattles unstable, grieving Paul.
Soprano Lyne Fortin, as Marietta, rattles unstable, grieving Paul.

Quebec soprano Lyne Fortin (as both the dead wife Marie and the newcomer Marietta) conveyed Marietta’s libertine irreverence with a dangerous sexual energy, rattling Paul’s insular fragility. Her performance of the opera’s best-known aria, “Marietta’s Lied,” was charming, and late in the drama she offered a compelling blend of compassion and force, just the medicine Paul’s rigid personality needed.  The character Marietta dances for a living; Fortin wasn’t the first opera singer I’ve seen who couldn’t convincingly portray a triple threat.

Tenor David Pomeroy (Paul), who is growing an international career, debuted at the Met as Offenbach’s Hoffmann and more recently sang Paul at Oper Frankfurt. The part is enormous.  Pomeroy delivered a powerful portrayal of his anguished character’s living nightmare, a man trapped in a psychic cul de sac. His battles with Marietta,  whom he believes may be the reincarnation of his dead Marie, were strikingly dramatic; both performers are comfortable actors, but they used their musical muscles to elevate the intensity of the struggle to an intimate, sometimes violent, pitch that only the best opera performance can capture. The part did wear Pomeroy down by the third act, when he was clearly drawing on reserves.

Brett Polegato, left, sings Pierrot's 'Tanzlied.'
Baritone Brett Polegato, as Fritz, in the second act set-piece ‘Pierrot’s Tanzlied.’

Toronto-based baritone Brett Polegato, as Paul’s friend Frank, played the voice of reason splendidly, and the 50s-style gray suit that costume designer Heather Moore helped Polegato project his business-like rationality at first. But toward the end of the first act Polegato sang with power and fire as Frank turns on Paul (or so we’re led to believe in this dream play), declaring himself Paul’s rival for Marietta’s affection. And in Act Two, Polegato played Fritz, in Marietta’s commedia dell’arte troupe. He delivered the intimacy of “Pierrot’s Tanzlied” with warmth and beauty, projecting the tune’s romance and nostalgia.

Mezzo-soprano Emilia Boteva’s Brigitta, Paul’s housekeeper, opened Die tote Stadt with confident, exciting singing. Her role is relatively small, but Boteva made it her own, and the audience loved her.

Calgary Opera's emerging artists starred in the 'commedia dell’ arte' second act.
Calgary Opera’s emerging artists starred in the ‘commedia dell’ arte’ second act.

The company’s emerging artists played the members of the commedia dell’ arte troupe, an interlude that was both amusing and well sung. The dream scene was terrifically fanciful, with commedia costumes and enormous, grotesque papier-mâché heads bobbing about.

Like pretty much every economic sector in Calgary, the arts, including Calgary Opera, are vulnerable. The downturn in oil, the mainstay of Calgary and Alberta’s economy, has affected box office, fundraising, and programming. McPhee told me one oil company, which had previously committed $75,000 to the Opera, cut its donation to $25,000. And the Opera’s fledgling light-opera outdoor summer program, which had been a hit since its debut in 2013, is a victim of tight finances and will be shelved for the time being.

McPhee says he’s tapping a contingency fund in the short term. The situation, although precarious, isn’t hopeless, but he does admit that if Alberta’s economic woes continue for a few years, then every artistic enterprise in Calgary is in jeopardy.

In the meantime, Calgary Opera continues to lead Canada in producing new work and productions of Canadian firsts, and its excellent Die tote Stadt is one more example of the company’s commitment to original and unpredictable programming.

Bill Rankin is an Edmonton-based freelance writer who covers classical music for Opera Canada and the American Record Guide, among other publications.