Hope I don't get crucified again...
March 15th: A serious operetta?
Sunday’s performance of Lehár’s Das Land des Lächlens attempted to give depth to one of the lightest musical genres. Unfortunately, a serious, bittersweet operetta is like anyone who has ever been in a Seth Rogen comedy attempting drama: despite the talent of the cast, something is left desired.
The operetta opens with an introduction to our heroine Lisa. There’s a party, and the scene is light and happy. But, as soon as it began, drama comes in: she is in love with a Chinese prince, Sou-Chong. There is no background, only lovers singing to each other. Soon, she decides to marry Prince Sou-Chong and return with him to China in time for the second act, leaving her suitor Count Gustav von Pottenstein behind in Vienna. I might be too much of a literalist, but this seemed quick, even for opera. Of course, once Lisa is in China, she is unhappy, and jealous that her husband has to marry other women, even if it is only for show. Lisa’s suitor comes to China, only to fall in love with the prince’s sister, Princess Mi, sing a duet while she removes an article of clothing per verse, and leave her to return to Vienna with Lisa. Isn’t that how it always goes? But wait, this is an operetta? Where are the Shakespearean twists and turns, or the Gilbert and Sullivan tounge-in-cheek attitude? In the end, Prince Sou-Chong and Princess Mi are heartbroken, yet the prince sings a song about how he must always smile, for it is the Chinese custom.
The ending is not one of marriages, foiled plots, and happiness: no one is happy. And yet, because everything seems so rushed despite a nearly three hour run time, and there is little development on how the characters feel, everything seems superficial. The drama has no time to develop. This is typical of operettas, but so is a generally happy ending, which Das Land des Lächlens lacks. Which leaves this viewer in a confused state. Perhaps the Viennese enjoy bittersweet endings, but this American had not been this puzzled since Jim Carrey started taking on dramatic roles: not bad, but unexpected within the genre.
Concert Report: Die Tote Stadt
When asked if I wanted to see Erich Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt, I accepted, not knowing anything about the opera. My opera knowledge still is embarrassingly limited: I had seen my first opera outside of college productions only a month and a half earlier. However, I had been told at home to take advantage of being able to see a different opera every night of the week, and I would be foolish to not branch out and see something new and unheard of, at least to me.
After a quick Wikipedia consult and an iTunes purchase, I was ready to prepare myself. I consulted RCA’s 1974 recording, conducted by Erich Leinsdorf, with Carol Neblett, Rene Kollo, and Hermann Prey. I was taken aback by the music. I had always felt that with other operas, the music (specifically, music of anyone besides the singer) usually was second-place in the production. Korngold had a much fuller orchestra, more typical of Wagner and Strauss. Unlike Wagner, however, I found myself actually liking the music.
I went to the Staatsoper on March 28th to hear Angela Denoke and Klaus Florian Vogt perform the opera I eagerly anticipated seeing for the first time. The opening in the Temple of Memories was what I expected: a dead room, with pictures haunting the place. It wasn’t until Paul started hallucinating that I was surprised. Things were done on that stage that I had no idea could even happen. Singers were climbing and dancing behind the stage. There was what appeared to be a mirror reflecting the stage, only to turn out to be a double stage behind the first where Paul’s hallucination with his dead wife took place. Frank climbs on top of a 2-dimensional house and taunts his friend in the dream. It was like watching staging meets figure skating: everything was smooth, effortless, and made me want to try it at home wearing socks on a hardwood floor. My perceptions on what could physically happen on a stage (and, because of this, time and space entirely) were totally changed. This is obviously something that an audio recording lacks. While one can tell what’s happening just by listening to the music, this staging made so much of a difference.
While the recording I consulted was fantastic, and indeed the one recommended to me, I thought the performers surpassed my expectations. While some of that was definitely related to the excitement of seeing a live performance, the two leads are incredibly demanding. I heard many high As and Bbs from Paul, who is onstage and singing for nearly the entire opera. The size of the orchestra also plays a part in the demand of the roles: the orchestra that so attracted me to the music is much larger than other opera orchestras. To sing a wide range over a much fuller orchestra for over two hours is incredibly impressive.
In researching the opera, I learned that audiences so anticipated Korngold’s latest opera that a double premiere had to be arranged, with opening performances in Hamburg and Cologne on December 4th, 1920. The opera became extremely popular and was performed worldwide, until a Nazi ban pushed Die tote Stadt out of view until recently. The opera must have found the perfect audience during the time of the premiere: Die tote Stadt is about a man’s reluctance to stop grieving for his dead wife and holding her image sacred in his “Temple of Memories,” his realization that this hold on the past will only lead to unhappiness and madness, and his acceptance and moving on and out of Bruges. For an audience that remembered all too well the horrors of WWI, this must have resonated deep inside everyone. I hope that this opera doesn’t fall into further obscurity, and that recent revivals bring it into a place that it deserves.