Although Die tote Stadt is considered Korngold’s best opera, it had fallen of grace since the days when divas like Maria Jeritza appeared in it in opera houses like the Met. Until the 1980’s, when the Deutsche Oper (with Karan Armstrong and James King) gave it a try and performances occasionally but increasingly pop up here and there. I had never seen it live and know it from Erich Leinsdorf’s recording with Carol Neblett, René Kollo and Hermann Prey. I have to say that I still have to learn to like Korngold, but it is also true that I’ve never tried really hard. In any case, I had very low expectations, and this is always helpful in these situations.
On listening again to the Leinsdorf CDs, I’ve almost changed my mind about actually going to the New National Theatre today: the plot is bizarre, the demands on singers and orchestra are extreme, the music rarely takes off and, when it does, it turns out quite kitsch. Fortunately, the forces involved in this production – developed for the Finnish National Opera as seen on video with Camilla Nylund and Klaus Florian Vogt – took the challenge seriously. I cannot blame director Kasper Holten for sanitizing the staging of its pierrots, nuns, orgiastic dance numbers and gondolas. He has also found a not unwelcome comedy touch in serious scenes that helped the audience to indulge into something suspension of disbelief. However, the grotesque is a bit part of the story and this opera loses some of its flavor when rescued from its cheesiness. Conductor Jaroslav Kyzlink too has decided to deny it its operetta-ish undertones and go for the Frau-ohne-Schatten approach. And for someone like me who hasn’t yet acquired the taste for this opera, this seemed the right decision. The performance moved forward without indulgence, highlighting the coloristic orchestration and preferring objectivity to sentimentality. Of course, the Tokyo Symphony Orchestra is not Leinsdorf’s Müncher Rundfunkorchester, but – even if its strings like warmth and weight – these musicians played with great animation. Unfortunately, the effort would become more noticeable during the opera. The prelude to the third act was everything but polished. But the animation was still there – and that the conductor could keep it throughout is really praiseworthy.
I had seen Meagan Miller just once before – as Elisabeth here in the New National Theatre. It seems that bad girls bring the best in her. Although the voice lacks a distinctive color, has many tremulous moment and phrasing can be bumpy, she gave an exciting performance in the role of Marietta. First, her big lyric soprano is the voice for the role. Second, the high tessitura shows her best qualities (round, effortless top notes and endless stamina). Third, the provocative character suits her vocal nature better than the spiritual subtlety of Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Also, although she wouldn’t convince anyone that she could be a dancer, she seemed to be having the time of her life playing the femme fatale. It is hardly her fault if Torsten Kerl was this afternoon’s shining star. His spontaneous, glitch-free tenor gleams in this demanding part. And he sings elegantly and musicianly too. Under a conductor who never forgot his singers, his jugendlich dramatisch voice could be heard without problem. Moreover, if René Kollo sounds more tormented in the CDs, it is Kerl who makes this music sound singable and expressive in his tasteful legato and almost classical poise. I would say that the director did not seem to demand from him any sort of spiritual torment, the approach being rather detached and caricatured rather than internalized or intense. I had previously seen Anton Keremidtchev as Macbeth in Berlin and was positively surprised by the German side of his repertoire. His rich, sizable voice worked very well both in Frank’s conversational phrasing and in Fritz’s aria, in which I curiously didn’t miss Hermann Prey’s sophistication and variety. Although Makiko Yamashita (Brigitta) was not very clear in diction, her voice is extremely pleasant and the singer is stylish. All minor roles were well cast too.