Review: Dallas Opera’s ‘Die tote Stadt’ is mostly worth the wait

Sebastian Lang-Lessing
Dallas Morning News

By Scott Cantrell

Die tote Stadt is such a glorious wallow in soaring melodies and sumptuous, brilliantly colored orchestration that the rare actual performance is a special occasion. Alas, the very qualities that make Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s ripely romantic 1920 opera so stirring also make it a challenge to realize in the theater. On the Dallas Opera’s wish list for at least a decade, it finally made it to the Winspear Opera House on Friday night.

The central role of Paul, a man so obsessed with his dead wife that he imagines her reincarnated in another woman he has just met, calls for a tenor of Wagnerian/Straussian heft, and one able to sing great stretches in his upper range. Marietta, the object of his transferred obsession, must be a soprano of comparable power, and plausible as a dancer. Add an elaborately textured orchestral score that requires fastidious rehearsal — Strauss meets Puccini — and very careful management in performance.

Oh, and a story that oozes from reality to surrealist fantasy and back again requires some imagination in staging, but not too much.

The Dallas production, which originated at the Danish National Opera, leaves no doubt of the work’s beauty and importance. But demerits, including too much imprecisely tuned singing, are not insignificant.

Multilayered video projections, designed by Wendall Harrington, plausibly realize Paul’s fantasies, apart from overuse of religious imagery. Doubling as set designer, stage director Mikael Melbye supplies only drab gray walls and furniture shrouded in dust covers, plus an enormous painting of the dead Marie.

Jay Hunter Morris certainly plays a disturbed Paul, and he has the requisite decibels, but his voice sounds frayed and effortful. Mardi Byers, as Marietta/Marie, sings impressively on high, the tone alternately gleaming and delicately glowing, but middle-range writing wants a warmer core of sound. About her efforts to portray a sexpot dancer, the less said the better. Deirdre Clancy’s unflattering costumes don’t help.

Some less demanding roles get more satisfying singing. Weston Hurt is a sturdy presence as Paul’s friend Frank, although his rich baritone wants more power. Katharine Tier supplies a potent if edgy mezzo for Paul’s housekeeper Brigitta.

Some fine performances come from Marietta’s theatrical friends, including Juliette (Jennifer Chung), Lucienne (Angela Turner Wilson), Victorin (Jan Lund) and Gaston (Tony Trahan). A standout is Andrew Bidlack’s Albert, with a bright, beautiful tenor of considerable power. Sadly, Morgan Smith’s Fritz/Pierrot brings thick tone and unpoetic delivery to the opera’s second great aria.

One could second-guess plenty of decisions in Melbye’s staging, but it gets the job done. The orchestra could have used more focus here and there on opening night, and far less boomy bell sounds, but it was a generally impressive performance for what is, after all, an occasionally assembled ensemble. Conductor Sebastian Lang-Lessing coordinated the procedings with skill and sympathy. The offstage chorus, prepared by Alexander Rom, sang capably, although adult sopranos weren’t convincing as the called-for children’s chorus.