‘The Dead City’ is vibrantly alive

Eighty-eight years after its sensational premiere in Germany, Erich Korngold’s “Die Tote Stadt” (The Dead City) arrived at the San Francisco Opera on Tuesday night in a production for which few adjectives seem adequate, but we’ll go with splendid.

In the history of ultra romantic music, Korngold’s work falls in line with Richard Strauss and Arnold Schoenberg (of the turn-of-the-century “Gurrelieder”), employed successfully by Puccini and eventually exploited and abused by Andrew Lloyd Webber. “Die Tote Stadt” is all sweet sounds, every phrase resolving to a major key, the ebb and flow of a beating heart, divine schlock — as well as something different, something more.

A future Hollywood soundtrack king, Korngold started writing this opera when he was 20, and the work seems to explode continuously with youthful genius, constant tempo changes and impossibly difficult vocal lines against a 75-piece orchestra in frequent spasms of ecstasy. It’s all terribly difficult to do, but supremely rewarding to hear — when done well.

Under Donald Runnicles’ baton and a sterling cast, the premiere went beautifully, creating a grand, memorable night at the opera.

The story of a man’s agony — and eventual triumph over grief — in the “Dead City” of Bruges is told in two frequently interacting realms. Paul — sung heroically and gloriously by Torsten Kerl in his San Francisco debut — is unable to overcome the death of his wife, Marie, and when he meets a woman who looks like Marie, his struggle to choose between the living and the dead takes place in his grim reality and in increasingly disturbing dreams.

Emily Magee, also in her debut, took the dual role of Marie/Marietta and sang through an astonishing range from coquettish to heroic, from Musetta of “La Boheme” to Wagner’s Brünnhilde.

Former Adler Fellow Lucas Meachem returned to the house victoriously in the double role of Frank and Fritz, in great voice and with a self-confident performance. With effective restraint he sang one of the opera’s big hits, “Pierrot’s Tanzlied.”

Current Adler Fellows Katharine Tier (Brigitta), Ji Young Yang (Juliette),  Daniela Mack (Lucienne), Alek Shrader (Victorin) and Andrew Bidlack (Albert), have all done well, especially Tier, in an important role.

The Willy Decker production, a hit in Vienna and Salzburg, is being staged in San Francisco by Meisje Hummel, and — except for a runaway wig here, a creaking set unit there — it all went swimmingly. Wolfgang Gussmann’s production design is grandly operatic, with walls and ceilings moving in time with the shift of action between the real and the dream worlds. Ian Robertson’s Opera Chorus acted and sang on the wings of fabulous harmonies rising from the orchestra pit.

It was puzzling to see a significant number of patrons departing in the intermission, probably due to the length of the first act — nearly one and a half hours. They missed a short (40-minute) and gorgeous second act. For every audience member leaving early, I’ll wager on two or three who will return to another performance.

San Francisco Opera’s ‘Die Tote Stadt,’ by Erich Korngold

Where: War Memorial Opera House
When: Friday and Oct. 4 at 8 p.m.; Wednesday and Oct. 9 at 7:30 p.m.; Oct. 12 at 2 p.m.
Tickets: $15 to $260 (senior rush, $30; standing room, $10)
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com

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