Thursday November 29, 2012


Tote Stadt -- Long ago I watched an opera on DVD and was simply not impressed. I just saw the same one on an ArtHaus DVD and was deeply impressed. "Die Tote Stadt" (The Dead City) was composed by a 23-year-old named Erich Wolfgang Korngold to a libretto written by his father under the pen name Paul Schott, based on a play named "Bruges-la-Mort."

The opera deals with Paul (James King), a man so obsessed by his wife’s death that he moves to Bruges, which he considers a city of death, and sets up in his home a shrine to her memory. His wife was named Maria, and when he meets (as in "Vertigo") a woman who could be her double, named Marietta (Karan Armstrong), his obsession turns to (if it hadn’t already) insanity.

She treats him as her disposition guides her, now proclaiming love, now boasting of her other affairs, especially with his best friend Frank (William Murray). He knows she is a dancer, and he hides by her house as she frolics with a troupe of actors in comedia del’ arte garb, driving Paul further to the brink.

I cannot reveal what happens in Act II or Act III without spoiling one shock after another -- and the triple twist ending. It is impressive at the least.

Now I must emphasize that (to me) the last "opera" that meets our expectations of what that genre has to offer was "Turandot" (1924). The followers of Wagner (most of whom lacked his genius) decided that (1) the words must be as important as the music and then (2) tonal music was old hat and 12-tone was in. But they kept calling it "opera" and many wondered at the disappearance of melody in a genre where melody was once essential.

Some passages of "Die Tote Stadt" do, I’m afraid, sound like two people shouting at each other. But the score is tonal, and there are long passages of supreme beauty. My favorite moment is the song of Pierrot in Act II. The lute song sung by Marietta in Act I actually became a popular hit in cities where the work was played.

King and Armstrong, apart from being strong singers, are also strong actors. And the events they create are quite believable. It helps that it was decided when this production was being prepared for television in 1983, that the action would take place on the stage of Deutsche Oper Berlin but also shot as a movie. And the realistic settings help immensely.

The running time is 122 minutes, the picture is in color and full screen, and there are subtitles. All in all, this DVD is a winner.

Forbidden Broadway -- The latest in a long line of a series of satirical reviews is now out on a DRG CD, under the optimistic title "Forbidden Broadway, Alive & Kicking." A small group sounds like a big one, sending up as it does both past and recent Broadway musicals and those that perform them. And some others aspects of Broadway lore.

The most pointed jab on this disc is their take on "Gershwin’s ‘Porgy and Bess’," (not to be confused with Rodgers and Hart’s "Porgy and Bess," as the notes tell us), in which a certain female "improver" changes a classic into what she believes the show should be. Why put on stage a show that one hates? This segment goes beyond satire.

Some performers are shown up as weak singers (Matthew Broderick, Catherine Zeta-Jones), as outstaying their welcome (Bernadette Peters in "Follies" -- and "Follies" itself), and for exhibiting less than professional attitudes and ego-tripping. Even Judy Garland does not escape the wicked eye of creator and writer Gerard Alessandrini.

Other shows shown through the Forbidden Broadway lens are "Annie," "Spiderman," "Evita," "Anything Goes," "Newsies," "Once" and "The Book of Mormon" (called "The Book of Morons" by the FB troupe).

Warning. Those unfamiliar with the shows and personalities involved might smile a bit and wonder what is going on. And I do wish the chorus would be trained to use better enunciation, so that many of the jokes are not lost.

Frank Behrens reports on classical and Broadway music as well as recordings of books and plays for the Arts & Entertainment section.


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