A Thriller at the Dallas Opera — Die tote Stadt

As the curtains rose on the “temple of memories” that set the scene for Die tote Stadt, the Dallas audience became immersed in a struggle between grief and obsession.

Die tote Stadt follows the descent of Paul (Jay Hunter Morris) into what seems like complete insanity as he rides back and forth on a wave of emotions after meeting a woman who looks like his departed bride. Tenor, Jay Hunter Morris, does an absolutely stunning job of portraying the crazed lover; using wonderful phrasing to bring across the characters raw reactions to all of the things he thinks are happening around him. His acting also helps to continue to remind the audience that it’s not the story that’s a little crazy — it’s him.

The setting of the work moves between a multitude of scenes and images that are all performed within the set that is originally supposed to be Paul’s home. This works well to underline the fact that everything we’re seeing is something happening inside of Paul’s mind. The Dallas production team brings across the variety of settings by coupling Korngold’s cinematic score with stirring video by designer Wendall Harrington, and a wonderful use of a “curtain” to represent things that are happening outside of the home. This effect is most haunting in the Act I scene where Soprano, Mardi Byers, performs the dual roles of Marietta (Paul’s new love) and Marie (Paul’s dead wife). As the “ghost” of Marie rises out of the painting to be revealed behind a curtain to tell Paul that he must move on, there was an audible gasp throughout the audience at the effect. In fact, it was the “off-stage” (though technically she was still on stage) style of singing where Ms. Byers most excelled. Byers engrossed both Paul, and the audience, with her antics to prove that she wasn’t the saint that Paul wanted her to be — or that he thought his dead wife had been.

Morgan Smith performs Pierrot's Lied in Dallas Opera Die tote Stadt
Morgan Smith performs Pierrot’s Lied in Dallas Opera Die tote Stadt | Photo by © Karen Almond, Dallas Opera

One of the more impressive extensions of the minimal set happened in Act Two as Paul is spying on Marietta rehearsing with her dance troupe. The dance troupe enters in the back of the hall and sings their way through the audience and onto the stage. The interactive effect was easily felt throughout the opera house. The scene also happened to feature some of the best performances of the night, featuring baritone, Morgan Smith, who absolutely stole the show with Pierrot’s Lied in the role of Fritz.

What tied the shifting plot lines together and kept each of the three acts on target was Korngold’s motif-heavy score. Conductor, Sebastian Lang-Lessing, was fantastic in his Dallas Opera debut, as the orchestra nailed each of the musical shifts and wonderfully supported the singers despite some at times less-than-powerful singing. Some of the best moments in the work were when the audience got to sit back and listen as the orchestra accompanied Wendall Harrington’s Hitchcock-esque video work.

And just when you thought that Paul — and you as an audience member — has finally come to the end of the line after he kills Marrietta and holds her body exclaiming, “Now she is exactly like Marie”; Korngold lifts you out of the insanity and reveals that it was all a dream. As he awakes, Paul realizes he has to leave the city if he ever wants to truly move past the death of his wife, and he can’t pretend that Marietta is Marie resurrected, saying: “A dream has dashed my dream to earth, A dream of crude realities has killed the dream of fantasy and sweet deception. Such dreams are sent to us by our dead. If we live too much with and in them … Fare you well, my faithful love. Life and death must part.”