Sunday, March 29, 2009

In Bruges (Not the movie) Part Three (Conclusion, at least for now...)

So, there I was last November, enthusiastically planning the visit to San Francisco, including the performance of "Die tote Stadt" at the Opera, and visiting those locations seen in "Vertigo" (and "Bullitt" of course) for some photography, especially The Golden Gate Bridge from Old Fort Point. Yes, I know Ernie's is no more, and the mission down the coast has no bell tower. But that's all right; there'll be much to enjoy.

Well, talk about "best laid plans." As I'm about to reserve my seat at the Opera, and make the other necessary arrangements, something comes up that stops the process. Not important what it was, but the frustration I felt at having to cancel a trip I was really looking forward to soon turned to being very glad I didn't go.

Ed is an old friend and professional colleague who shares many of my interests in music. He found, on line, a review of the production in one of the San Francisco newspapers and, thoughtfully, e-mailed me a link. What follows explains why this was the rare instance where backing out of a trip I'd so looked forward to planning turned out to be...a relief. The review instantly told me what I would have had to spend a grand or more, and blow a bunch of valuable airline miles, to find out: I would have been sadly repulsed at sitting through that around which I'd enthusiastically been planning a trip.

I mentioned in Part Two that I had an axe to grind against a certain segment of the opera (and other musical performing arts) world, inhabited by egos-on-steroids directors intent on putting their own - often bizarre - stamps on the works they stage. Who knows the reasons - there are probably many. Perhaps to make a "dated" piece like "Die tote Stadt" more "relevant" to what passes for present day "culture." Or maybe just to feed their sometimes outrageously over-developed egos and make an artistic "statement."

Case in point...I cited the easy-to-obtain DVD of the Opéra du Rhin 1999 Strasbourg performance of "Die tote Stadt." Without doubt, it is beautifully sung, with a cast headed by Angela Denoke (another fine singing actress) as Marietta/Marie and and Torsten Kerl as Paul. I'd gladly listen to it, alongside the three preferred performances mentioned earlier - as long as I didn't have to watch this bizarre staging.

Before giving examples, let's state the obvious: Paul remains hopelessly in love with his dead wife and can only try to revive such feelings with her doppelgänger, and only in a tortured dream sequence that turns into a sort of mortal combat. So it's rife with the stuff that makes psychiatrists and psychoanalysts rich. But Korngold's music and vision are sublimely beautiful. As are the Bruges settings in any simpatico staging, such as the 1975 New York City Opera or the 1983 Berlin productions mentioned earlier.

As with any fantasy, no matter how dramatic or emotionally tortured, it requires a suspension of disbelief, and certainly in the case of Korngold's powerful music, the willingness to immerse oneself in the story, especially in Paul's dream-turning-to-nightmare, which constitutes most of the opera.

Anyone who has loved intensely and lost that loved one should be able to view Paul as the tortured and tragic figure he empathize, even to a modest degree, with his rapture at discovering this young woman who reminds him so much of his lost love, as well as with his ill-starred attempt to regain the love he had with Marie.

I could continue throwing words at it...but if you watch James King in the 1983 Berlin production (as far as I know, the only available video representation of a "traditional" staging), you won't need my words. Mr. King nailed it.

And he did so with dignity. We do not see him clutching a ... doll! Nor do we see him reaching for a skeletal hand coming out of the floor (presumably from where he buried his dead wife??) Are you creeped out yet? Must admit I was at learning of these new staging features. Nah, I thought, that can't be - you must've misread something in the reviews. Viewing clips on YouTube confirmed these bizarre aberrations and countless others, both in the Opéra du Rhin and the San Francisco Opera production I'd been so anxious to attend.

But here's a particularly odious "touch" that seems to be showing up a great deal in these "modern" stagings of "Die tote Stadt." Marie's hair (and that of Marietta) are key dramatic elements in the plot. Paul loved Marie's hair. He keeps a long braid of it in a glass enclosure. He is attracted to Marietta, in no small measure, because her hair reminds him of his beloved. In the dream sequence, Marietta, determined to win Paul over from his devotion to his deceased wife, reminds him how much he loved to touch her own hair.

Perhaps I'm missing something here, but what then is the logic or validity of having Marietta spend most of the dream a bald wig?!?

I suppose I should be glad this is a "modern" quirk. As beautiful as Karan Armstrong is as both Marie and Marietta, in the 1983 Berlin production, I doubt I'd have cared to see even Ms. Armstrong portraying a bald Marietta. And, fortunately, I was spared of any such nonsense being inflicted on the lovely Ms. Neblett in 1984 at the Kennedy Center.

Oh, yes, I should add I'll gladly do without crucifixion in the dream sequence...and why make a mockery of the classic beauty of Bruges, as some recent stage settings have done?

What is going on here?

If a segment of the Art Universe were seeking to drive a stake into the passionate heart of "Die tote Stadt," they could not have found a better way to do so than some of these recent travesties.

Then, in December, I learned The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden had a production scheduled for January. Surely, this august and venerable institution would stage the opera with more respect to its creator's vision...

So, once again, the travel wheels start turning. A few nights in London, perhaps also taking in a musical or two on the West End...then, a first ride on the Eurostar to Belgium for, naturally, a pilgrimage to the ever-appealing Bruges, once again in close proximity to having seen a satisfying performance of "Die tote Stadt."

Now, I'm really excited. Until I learn more about the production planned for Covent Garden. Yep, more bald-Marietta and other gross distortions to the beauty of what I've come to love as sympathetic staging of the opera.

So, the airline miles stay in my account. But, at this stage, I despair of seeing "Die tote Stadt" in a European opera house. And that's more the tragedy, as it seems these "adventurous" (to be kind) stagings are somewhat the norm in Europe and elsewhere, at least for the present. Even in Korngold's Vienna, it would appear the upcoming Staatsoper production is to be one of those bizarre distortions.

One hopes this idiocy and disrespect for a beautiful work will pass. Meanwhile, I suppose I can either imagine Korngold turning in his grave...or if there is a Heaven, I'm sure it's equipped with the very best celestial audio/video system imaginable, and I envision dear Erich Wolfgang, perhaps kicking back with Götz Friedrich and James King, smoking cigars, drinking brandy, and watching the tape of the 1983 Berlin production, with big broad smiles, entranced as I at viewing a production that is truly a Gold Standard. When I get there, I want to shake their hands and say "Thank you, Gentlemen, for a gift that enriched me immensely." Perhaps when Karan Armstrong arrives (and hopefully, not for many years!) she'll join us and I can thank her too.

Meanwhile, on the serendipitic chance that someone reading this knows of a "traditional" production of "Die tote Stadt" (no bald headed Marietta, no Paul clutching a doll or a skeletal hand, no one nailed to a cross, please) with a suitable sized orchestra and fine performers, planned for...anywhere...I'd certainly appreciate your being in touch with the particulars.

Till then, I shall treasure the Götz Friedrich/Karan Armstrong/James King Berlin production on my DVD...The Stockholm production on CD...and those Dolby-B tapes of Leinsdorf's recording in I hold out hope of enjoying at least one more fully staged and beautifully sung and played - "traditional" - production of "Die tote Stadt." Dare I hope for such a staging in Bruges itself, or at least a train ride away?

OK, Dear Reader, that's my story on "Die tote Stadt," and I'm stickin' to it. If I've introduced even a few, out of curiosity, to this work, I'm happy.

One quick post-script before closing: I wrote in the previous post how taken I was with Karan Armstrong's intelligent beauty and expressiveness as an operatic actress. Even if you are not moved by the foregoing narrative to fully immerse yourself in this video of "Die tote Stadt," please go on YouTube and look up the clip of the final scene. Type in: Die tote Stadt James King Karan Armstrong - that should be enough to get you on the right page. Then select "Die tote Stadt - Final." Make sure you select the HQ version for the clearest video. If you're in a hurry, scoot the cursor up to 1:54. You need only watch from there to 3:08. In that one minute and fourteen seconds, you'll see a good example of why Karan Armstrong is so enchanting as a singing actress. A vision in stylish white, she returns (as Marietta) to Paul's house, where she left her umbrella and the very large bouquet of roses the infatuated Paul gave her in Act I.

She sings how she wonders if perhaps her returning for them might be considered an omen...she draws ever closer to Paul, searching his eyes as to whether they might kiss, but sees that he can not respond to her. Watch the recognition in her face and the sensitivity of her acting and movement as she turns to leave, pausing to look back once more at Paul's helpless stance, his hands still held out, but unable to call her back, and her curtsy to Paul's friend Frank who enters as she leaves. All to Korngold's achingly beautiful orchestral accompaniment.

Some of life's most indelible and affecting beauty comes to us in short moments. For me, this was one of them.