DIE TOTE STADT – A BAD HAIR DAY IN THE DEAD CITY

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Fine Arts Critic
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

With hands-on-hips to San Francisco Opera’s General Director David Gockley – “Do you know where you are?!” Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s 1920 opera DIE TOTE STADT is the third entry into SF Opera’s 2008-09 Season. Composed at the tender age of 23, the score hovers around the nearly stunning, but is inherently fraught with difficulties given the high tessitura of the tenor hero and the vocal diversity required in the dual roles of the lead soprano. Given the political climate of its debut and the parallels it finds today, it may be argued that Die Tote Stadt proves most inviting during the weariness of war and the subsequent periods of disillusionment. In other words, it’s a third ring opera that requires high-octane fueling. Within this scope, many a skeptical expression was exchanged during intermission at Tuesday’s opening night performance.

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DIE TOTE STADT. Photo, Terrence McCarthy

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PORTRAIT OF MISS ELSIE PALMER and the young ERICH WOLFGANG KORNGOLD

San Francisco Opera is capable and worthy of far better than this witless and ineffectual import co-produced in 2004 by the Salzburg Festival, the Vienna State Opera, Netherlands Opera, and the Gran Teatre del Liceu. Conductor Donald Runnicles was at the podium for its premiere at both Salzburg and Vienna. Did he watch the production? With the major exception of his orchestra occasionally drowning out the singers, it is clear that Mr. Runnicles’ vast experience with Strauss and Wagner provided great color and nuance to the Korngold score. But it was not enough to blind the eye to empty-headed stage direction, abysmal and clunky set designs, cockamamie costuming, wacky fall-off-your-head wigging, and the foolish employment of John Singer Sargent’s 1890 painting, A Portrait of Miss Elsie Palmer, to represent the fairest of the fair – the dead wife of the inconsolable “Paul”. The original richly-hued oil portrait was cropped-down to a flimsy washed-out head-shot, then enlarged and cheaply framed. The result is a benign study of a not-too-fetching ingénue who was drowsy-eyed then and lethargic now. Miss Palmer is not the feast for sore eyes nor the kicker in a vow of perpetual fidelity. Likewise, this production will not inspire a season subscription.

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TORSTEN KERL and EMILY MAGEE. Photos, Terrence McCarthy

Principal singers – Torsten Kerl (Paul) and Emily Magee (Marie/Marietta) – are to be praised for delivering two hours and 35 minutes of heavy-duty vocal output, but are miserably mismatched in the sometime/anytime love and lust department. Maybe it’s the always frumpy appearance of Mr. Kerl. Maybe it was Ms. Magee’s unfortunate pulling off of her wig upon arrival and never getting it back on quite straight throughout Act I and then being a bald semi-conehead through Act III.

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EMILY MAGEE (Marietta) and TORSTEN KERL (Paul)
Photo, Terrence McCarthy

The haunting strains of one almost aria/duet, “Marietta’s Lied” (Glück, das mir verblieb) may be familiar to some dedicated opera/recital goers, but the vast majority of the score contains a wash of themes too short to latch onto or remember. The vocal and orchestral lines point toward Richard Strauss and Giacomo Puccini, but never deliver their knock-out punch. Korngold’s career took off in 1935 when Warner Brothers Studios signed him to adapt Felix Mendelssohn’s score of A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM for the Max Reinhardt film. Korngold began to soar with his next assignment, CAPTAIN BLOOD, starring the handsome and athletically-fit hearthrob, Errol Flynn. Perhaps his point of inspiration, Korngold would reach the heights with other of Mr. Flynn’s epics including such classics as THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, SEA HAWK, and THE PRIVATE LIVES OF ELIZABETH AND ESSEX.

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Lucas Meachem (Frank), and Katharine Tier (Brigitta)

Fine vocals were delivered from baritone Lucas Meachem as “Frank” and Katharine Tier as “Brigitta”. The “Cabaret” ensemble consisted of Ben Bongers, Alek Schrader, Lucas Meachem, Ji Young Yang, Bryan Ketron, Andrew Bidlack, and Daniela Mack. Again, this is San Francisco! Has the director ever been to a cabaret or seen a movie about one? What is supposed to be a disturbing dream to “Paul” – the inner conflicts that come with suppressed sexual expression and release, self doubt and denial, religious bugaboos, and a long list of etceteras – instead comes off as pure imitation vanilla foo-foo. Everyone – including the present and past members of the Merola Opera Program and Adler Fellows – would do well to see the current production of JUNGLE RED at the Victoria Theatre featuring glamorous drag queens Varla Jean Merman, Trauma Flintstone, Katya Smirnoff-Skyy and Ethel Merman. Then top that off with the FOLSOM STREET FAIR this coming Sunday between 11 AM and 6:00 PM. With over 400,000 people in attendance covering 13 city blocks, the Fair is the largest leather/fetish event in the world and the third largest, single-day outdoor event in California.

A couple hours of that? The look and feel of a Die Tote Stadt created in San Francisco by SF Opera could be the biggest Box Office bonanza and greatest export the company has ever known.

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Ben Bongers, Alek Schrader, Lucas Meachem, Ji Young Yang, Bryan Ketron, Andrew Bidlack, Daniela Mack. Photo, Terrence McCarthy

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Seán Martinfield is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.

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