DALLAS Die Tote Stadt, which the Dallas Opera is currently producing, means “The Dead City.” It might more accurately be called “The Dead Wife,” since it’s about the pathological obsession of a man for his deceased mate.
It’s a work from the heyday of Freudian psychology (the opera debuted in 1920), and its hallucinatory quality, beautifully realized in this production, seems perfectly in tune with that epoch’s focus on the subconscious.
Almost all of what happens after the opening scene is in the husband’s imagination. Listeners may ask themselves from time to time, “Is this a nightmare or is it for real?” Mostly, it’s the former.
The opera’s creator, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, was a young genius much admired in Europe early in the 20th century for his classical compositions. He came to America and started a new career in Hollywood as a writer of film music. This is what gave him his reputation among Americans, though he never completely abandoned the classical field.
Die Tote Stadt doesn’t sound like an easy opera, for either the cast or the orchestra, but it has dramatic music and some vocally appealing scenes. The Dallas Opera’s performance in the Winspear Opera House on Sunday afternoon was most compelling for creating a powerful piece of theater while performing the music competently.
Tenor Jay Hunter Morris as the obsessive husband and soprano Mardi Byers in the double role of the dead young wife (in hallucinations, of course) and the woman who reminds him of her deserve medals for convincing portrayals and vocal stamina in difficult music.
Mezzo Katherine Tier as the housekeeper made a strong impression in the opening scene with a sequence whose length made you think she was going to be one of the afternoon’s major characters.
Baritone Weston Hurt as the husband’s best friend was another powerful participant, and the remainder of the cast made vivid impressions.
The Dallas Opera orchestra conducted by Sebastian Lang-Lessing played powerfully and well, though there were times when its mighty sounds submerged vocal passages.
Stage director Mikael Melbye and his design team — Deirdre Clancy (costumes), Wendall Harrington (video), Peter Kaczorowski (lighting) and David Zimmerman (wigs and makeup) — deserve a great deal of credit for creating the gloomy atmosphere of the production.
Shrouded furniture suggested decay and death, a very large portrait of the dead wife kept the focus not far from her, and videos and large projected still photos created a sense of time and place (Bruges, Belgium, the “dead city” of the title).
This was an opera that captured and held attention.