Clayton Hilley Stars with Stamina and a Helden Shine
Annandale-on-Hudson (Sosnoff Theater, Fischer Center)
Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Die tote Stadt, opus 12
Sara Jakubiak (Marietta/Marie), Clay Hilley (Paul), Alexander Elliott (Franz/Fritz), Deborah Nansteel (Brigitte), Rebecca Ringle Kamarei (Lucienne), So Young Park (Juliette), Richard Troxell (Count), William Ferguson (Gaston/Victorin)
Bard Festival Chorale, James Bagwell (Choral director), The Orchestra Now, Leon Botstein (Music director)
Jordan Fein (Director), Stephan Moravski (Set design), Mark Barton (Lighting design), Terese Wadden (Costume Design)
S. Jakubiak, C. Hilley
Leon Botstein, polymath leader of Bard’s SummerScape Festival, calls our attention each summer to neglected composers whose work is deserving. Botstein being Botstein provides both insights and concerts full of elucidation and pleasure.
Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s work is no exception. Best known now for his film scores, written when Hollywood was young, Korngold defined the film score genre. He saw film as opera without songs. Each character had a theme. He was a composer who could have done anything. Botstein led his best-known opera is Die tote Stadt, completed when he was 23, revealing all the ripe and redblooded music.
The demanding lead role of Paul was sung by American tenor, Clay Hilley, whose voice is even-toned, dramatic and brilliant with its helden edge. His performance is a feat of amazing endurance, performed at the highest level. It is easy to see why Mr. Hilley is a favorite of Yannick Nézet-Seguin and Donald Runnicles among others. Sara Jakubiak stepped into the role of Marietta for this performance. She had previously starred in Korngold’s Heliane. In her repertoire many of the roles relate to this one, a kind of Lulu, who collects men by kinky seduction which leads her to risk her life like Carmen. In front of a smitten Paul, she seduces The Count, Richard Troxell singing his role with a reciprocal enthusiasm. Her demimonde is full of Commedia dell’Arte characters, including Pierrot. Both principal singers had hard edges to their lines, even when, in the case of Ms. Jakubiak, they provided outlines to her lush gurgles. Whether performance choices created this effect, or it was so composed by Korngold was hard to determine. The effect was terrific. The voices rode over a very large orchestra. They felt at times like lines spoken as a story being told. The emergence of vocal lines from the orchestration also integrated the music.
The simplicity of the staging was also effective. The lighting by Mark Barton was pared down but carefully chosen. In loving moments a yellow gold bathes the stage. Blues and reds were also used to match moods. Sharp switches to black heralded scene changes. Bare white seats were set on white risers. The principals are introduced in the inside world of the home Paul shared with his beloved wife, Marie, indicated at the lip of the stage. Up the steps and out to the world beyond is the city of Bruges. Throughout the scintillating orchestration, we hear the sounds of the city: its ever present church bells, the water lapping on the canals shores, horses clopping and processions of honoring religious holidays. Today’s Bruges is weighted with memories of the Crusades. Hawkers sell small vials containing the blood of Christ and also bits of the cross on which he died.
While the setting may have religious overtones, the story is rooted in a universal struggle to return to life after a wrenching confrontation with death. The First World War raged as Korngold and his father, a famous music critic, undertook the libretto based on the popular novel of Georges Rodenbach, Bruges the Dead City. Both novelist and composer make the city itself a character. The character of the city is in parallel with the lead, Hughes in the novel, and Paul in the opera. He has lost his beloved wife and is frozen with her memory at home. The novel is gruesome. A woman is murdered. Dastardly deeds are moved to a dream in Korngold’s opera. The director Jordan Fein has placed a live actor as Marie rather than a portrait as the object of Paul’s fixation. The device works well in this stripped down version. Marie does not interact with the characters. Rather she responds to the invasion of a doppelgänger, the dancer Marietta, who reminds Paul of Marie. Lustful passions create a problem. The maid Brigitte, sung with a rich mezzo by Deborah Nansteel, reminds Paul that it is his duty to be faithful to Marie, even as she lies covered by roses beneath the ground. In the Korngolds’ take, Marietta suffers only as a figment of Paul’s imagination. She returns to pick up something she’s left behind after Paul wakes up from his dream. Very much alive, but only as a vehicle for Paul’s liberation from his obsessive fixation on his dead wife. Now he can leave Bruges.
Botstein led the young artists of The Orchestra Now in a rich performance of the opera, with lovely harp and vibraphone tones, and deep growls from the brass. The pictures Korngold is able to draw with carefully and aptly deployed instruments are evocative and spot on. Much of the orchestra’s language is colored by traditional harmonics. Yet at moments when extreme anguish is expressed or when characters are disturbed by violent fantasies, dissonance can be heard both in the orchestra and in the sequence of notes in the sung line. Korngold was using all the musical weapons provided by early twentieth century Vienna, both classic and futuristic. Korngold draws musical pictures of a city who both he, and the author of the novel treasured. Rodenbach’s novel is illustrated with photographs. Korngold would go on to illustrate film with musical sounds. Today, we inherit his preoccupation as producers join the music of Arvo Pärt and Steve Reich with the artwork of Gerhard Richter and adventuresome Peter Tscherkassky edits classic psychological horror films and invites composers to give them sound. Korngold defined this marriage of the visual and the auditory. He created new work of symphonic pictures combined with actual pictures.