Odyssey Opera has been around for just one year, but seems to have already found its voice and claimed its niche. Its most recent accomplishment, on Saturday night in Jordan Hall, was a triumphant first Boston performance of Korngold’s “Die Tote Stadt,” nearly a century after the work’s European premiere.
Exploring lesser-known works that have been consigned — sometimes for non-musical reasons — to the long shadows cast by opera’s overexposed greatest hits is this company’s essential mission. And so Korngold’s neglected score, once the crowning success of his Viennese youth, becomes de facto prime terrain. Jordan Hall was sold out for the occasion. It couldn’t hurt that the work, which has received many European productions in recent years, retains enough of an aura to spark the curiosity of the city’s more adventurous opera fans. It also helps that “Die Tote Stadt” is filled — or depending on your taste, a bit overstuffed — with the kind of sumptuously orchestrated music that earned Korngold his reputation as the Viennese Puccini.
Written between 1916 and 1920, the work is based on a novel by the Belgian symbolist writer Georges Rodenbach, adapted in a libretto by the composer and his father. Set in late-19th-century Bruges, it tells of a man named Paul who is so consumed with grief for the loss of his wife, Marie, that he has transformed a room of his home into a reliquary. When he meets the dancer Marietta, who bears a striking likeness to his deceased wife, he becomes obsessed with her, embracing his new lover as a kind of return of the old. When Marietta fails to play her part in this substitution drama, an enraged Paul strangles her with a preserved braid of Marie’s hair. Then suddenly he awakens to find that his descent into madness and murder was in fact all a dream. He realizes now that Marietta is not the answer to his quest; he must leave Bruges and search for a future unshadowed by the past.
The opera was victorious at its premiere in 1920, and it’s easy to imagine the libretto’s themes — especially the working through of wrenching personal loss — as speaking deeply for many of its first listeners following the unprecedented carnage of the First World War, a catastrophe that left few families untouched.
Interestingly, the dream-saturated libretto also clearly reflects Freud’s influence while notably abstaining from his pessimism. “I know for certain,” Freud himself wrote during the war years, “that I and my contemporaries will never again see a joyous world.” Korngold’s opera, with its warmly nostalgic melodies and deus-ex-machina ending — itself a departure from Rodenbach’s far darker novel — suggests otherwise. The composer here offered his listeners a chance to turn back the clocks and cocoon themselves in a world of hermetically sealed, late-Romantic beauty. Maybe it was all a dream. In this psychoanalytic session, the role of Dr. Freud would be played by Dr. Pangloss.
“Die Tote Stadt” requires powerful and intensely committed vocalism to cut through the sacher-torte richness of Korngold’s orchestral writing, and Saturday’s performance received just that from its two fine leads. Jay Hunter Morris threw himself into the notoriously punishing role of Paul. His singing was not without signs of strain, occasional fuzziness in pitch, and a certain brittleness around the edges of his tone, especially early on. But his nearly heroic commitment ultimately carried the day, as again and again he cast his tenor into the wind of Korngold’s giant orchestra, and then crossed the finish line, many hours later, with his voice intact enough to bring shape and pliancy to the return of the haunting melody from the famous “Marietta’s Lied,” just before the close.
The rising soprano Meagan Miller sang Marietta/Marie with a winning fullness of tone, a naturalness of phrasing, and an elegant way of sending high-lying passages sailing above the orchestra. And while this was a concert performance, she still credibly embodied the shifting moods of Marietta, the coquette, the free-spirited artist drawn to Paul’s mysterious inner life, and the proudly defiant young soul who will not don the mask of the dead. Erica Brookhyser had excellence to spare in the smaller role of Brigitta, Paul’s housekeeper, and Weston Hurt was more than capable as Frank, Paul’s friend. Thomas Meglioranza as the actor Fritz and Sara Heaton as the dancer Juliette both stood out among the rest of the capable cast.
The Strauss-size orchestra assembled for the occasion spread over nearly every inch of the stage, leaving only the balconies for the choral forces (drawn from the ranks of the New World Chorale, Boston City Singers, and Cambridge Children’s Chorus). Welding it all together from the podium, Odyssey artistic director Gil Rose led a clear-eyed, sonically luxurious, and at times electric account of this sweeping score, if also a slightly impersonal one. In a way, the star of the evening was the orchestra itself, which turned in an all-around superb performance, suggesting that Odyssey realizes the added obligations that come with its mission of advocacy. First impressions of a work will always loom largest.
Judging from the audience’s robust ovation, this opera of youthful hopefulness, all the more poignant when viewed from the other end of Korngold’s career, earned the composer some new admirers on Saturday night. It also reasserted the young company’s relevance. Simply put: The task of finally sifting through the rubble of the 20th century in music means giving works like “Die Tote Stadt” a chance to be heard. Or better still, to be championed with this kind of vibrancy.
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.