Thursday, March 26, 2009

In Bruges (Not the movie) Part Two

2008 was my “rediscovery” year for "Die tote Stadt," Erich Wolfgang Korngold's powerfully romantic stage work of which I wrote in Part 1. I do not even recall what prompted this re-awakening of interest, but it was probably a combination of influences. Probably the most direct nudge in that direction was seeing the trailers for the film “In Bruges” with its visuals of the Belfry, the canals, and the distinctive Flemish architecture.

Of course, it could easily have been more subtle than that, as there are numerous framed photographs in my house of images I captured on film during my visit to Bruges in 1984.

Or it might have been an evening spent with my DVD of “Vertigo,” one of my favorite Alfred Hitchcock films, and one I’ll probably never tire of viewing. If you are familiar with “Vertigo,” you know that James Stewart’s character, former San Francisco Police detective John “Scotty” Ferguson, is caught up in a deadly deception by his old acquaintance Gavin Elster. Elster plans to do away with his wife Madeleine, and his plan hinges on his knowledge of Scotty’s affliction of vertigo, dizziness relating to heights. Elster engages Scotty to shadow Madeleine, whom he describes as suicidal, haunted by the spirit of an ancestor she never knew, but who took her own life during the “mission days” of old California.

Scotty is reluctant to take on such a job, but one look at the alluring “Madeleine” at Ernie’s Restaurant is all it takes to reel him in. Much of the first half of the film has Scotty following this mysterious and troubled woman, played by Kim Novak, to various places in San Francisco, and rescuing her when she jumps into the bay in the cinematically iconic scene at Old Fort Point on the Presidio, with the Golden Gate Bridge looming in the misty background. By the end of the first act, Scotty is helplessly in love with “Madeleine” and intent on helping her solve her mysterious affliction. Her death by suicide, this time jumping from a mission bell tower, leaves him institutionalized out of grief…and guilt over his not having been able to prevent her jumping, due to his fear of heights.

When released from the hospital, it is not long before Scotty spots, on a downtown street, a woman bearing an uncanny resemblance to his beloved Madeleine. Her hair is a different color, worn in a different style than Madeleine’s, she is definitely more earthy, and decidedly hard…but Scotty becomes obsessed with Judy Barton’s similarity to his lost love “Madeleine.” The role of Judy is also played by Kim Novak, as a brunette. He follows her to the seedy hotel where she lives and implores her to allow him to spend time with her. A romance develops, but it, too, is ill-fated.

Sound familiar? A doppelgänger for a lost love, appearing by chance, less refined but terribly alluring…bell tower, misty settings by the water…a lovelorn man helplessly clinging to his second chance…

Oh, yes, and powerfully, passionately, romantic symphonic music. “Vertigo” is regarded by many as the legendary Bernard Herrmann’s finest film score.

Not to say that Korngold and Herrmann wrote in a really similar style, but, to my sensibilities, the Herrmann of “Vertigo” and the Korngold of “Die tote Stadt” come close enough to elicit some of the very same emotional responses.

And, in a way, one makes you want to listen to the other. Add the similarities of plot, and, well, a great many nocturnal hours can get spent in front of the speakers and the screen, just letting it all wash over you.

Also in 2008, I discovered two other superb recordings of “Die tote Stadt.” One was even a video, but both were eye-openers into this emotionally affecting and musically powerful work.

Naxos offers a very reasonably priced 2-CD set of the complete opera, a live performance by the Royal Swedish Opera in Stockholm, conducted by Leif Segerstam with Katarina Dalayman as Marietta/Marie and Thomas Sunnegardh as Paul heading the cast. It is well recorded, with the orchestra and singers living up to the power of Korngold’s score.

But the real “sleeper”  was the video - initially discovered in a few short clips on YouTube - of the 1983 Berlin Opera performance created and directed by Götz Friedrich and brilliantly conducted by Heinrich Hollreiser. This production featured the American tenor James King, in the role of Paul. Anyone at home in the operas of Wagner or Richard Strauss, as King was, is certainly a fine casting choice for Paul. Plus he simply looked right in the role. (Some of his stage gestures and expressions were just that, and perhaps appear too exaggerated in TV close-up, but that's a very small quibble!)

Ah, but the real surprise was his compatriot, the lovely Karan Armstrong, also with an active opera career in Germany. As I admitted in Part 1 to not being an opera maven, I freely admit I’d never known of Ms. Armstrong, and discovering her, singing both the free-spirited, coquettish Marietta, the spectral Marie, appearing to Paul at the end of Act I, and certainly the wicked dream-Marietta, and making each a compelling stage presence, was one of life’s happy revelations. Not only a fine – and breathtakingly beautiful – soprano, but genuinely a singing actress. Apparently Herr Doktor Friedrich agreed, as not only did he star the gorgeous gal from Montana in several productions; he married her. (Could I be imagining here, or is the lovely Ms. Armstrong the only true actress/soprano to have a cleft chin? No matter, it made her even more beautiful to me, and somehow this facial feature lent character-strength to both her Marietta and her Marie.)

To understand why I came to truly cherish this production, despite any video and audio quality limitations on the DVD – and believe me as a serious audiophile when I say, you will quickly get past them in perhaps the first few minutes of the first act when Paul sings his rapture at seeing Marietta’s resemblance to his deceased wife – you have to possess some awareness of the vandalism certain present day egos-on-steroids directors have inflicted on “Die tote Stadt.”

Let me return to that thought in Part Three. Meantime, I didn't mean to so highly praise a production that can only be seen in low-quality clips on YouTube. While not as readily available as the Opéra du Rhin 1999 production on a commercial DVD, for reasons I’ll get to later, it’s definitely worth seeking out. Or perhaps it would be instructive to seek out both, to see what I mean about vandalism in service to ego. More on that topic in Part 3. Yes, I have a wee axe to grind on that particular topic, especially when it comes to this particular opera...

So, back to “Vertigo,” “Die tote Stadt,” and…photography. Should I have named this blog Non-Sequitur instead of Thunderflakes? I don’t think so…

Last time I visited San Francisco was in 1984 (if you don’t count changing planes at SFO on the way to Vancouver in 1999). That’s too long…as many viewings of “Vertigo” (and “Bullitt”) pointed out.

So, when I heard the San Francisco Opera was mounting a performance of “Die tote Stadt” in late 2008, the wheels began turning. A chance to see a live production of Korngold’s operatic masterpiece…and, as photographer and incurable romantic, to make a pilgrimage to the locations I found so affecting in Hitchcock’s cinematic masterpiece.

OK, plenty of United miles to do it, even in First Class, if I so chose. Mark Hopkins or Fairmont on Nob Hill for lodging, in honor of those scenes in “Vertigo” and “Bullitt”). The naughty side of me considers renting a V-8 Mustang…or a black Charger. Nah, nix on the latter. The ’69 Bill Hickman drove in “Bullitt” was simply more snarky than the present bulked up version…Hmm, imagine instead a ’56 De Soto Firedome two-door hardtop with a big ol’ V-8.

Note to self: Do I watch too many movies?

Now, this is not the first trip I’ve planned that was inspired by a musical event, and I’ve enjoyed them all. So, why did the vision die? Not for lack of motivation, time off, airline miles, or funds.

Hold on to that egos-on-steroids vandalism thought, and we’ll pick it up in Part 3. Meantime Google “Die tote Stadt” James King Karan Armstrong Berlin, in whatever order you like. If you are at all a romantic…if you love Korngold’s music…even if you already have an audio recording of the opera, I think you might enjoy this discovery, especially if you sleuth around and find the DVD from that 1983 Berlin TV production. It’s ridiculously affordable and you might love it as much as I. The DVD is offered by a company named Premiere Opera. You'll find it on this web page: