Bard Music Festival saved the best for last. On the final day of its two-week exploration of Korngold’s life and work, Leon Botstein and The Orchestra Now presented a semi-staged concert performance of Die tote Stadt, the composer’s most enduring opera. Although now more frequently heard than in decades past – due in large part, at least in the US, to Frank Corsaro’s legendary 1975 staging, which remained in New York City Opera’s repertoire for 30 years – the 1920 work remains a relative rarity, and the one-off presentation drew opera lovers near and far to the bucolic hamlet of Annandale-on-Hudson.

Clay Hilley (Paul), Kirsten Harvey (Marie's Ghost) and Sara Jakubiak (Marietta)
© Stephanie Berger

Those who came did not leave disappointed. Although somewhat dramaturgically confounding, director Jordan Fein and designer Stephan Moravski delivered an elegant and visually striking mise en scène, with the stage of the Sosnoff Theater dominated by an arresting all-white orchestra setup. The chairs and music stands sat empty – the actual musicians were in the pit. Instead, this abandoned world stood in for the opera’s setting: both for Paul’s barren, cold home and for Bruges, the dead city of the work’s title. As lighted with a subtle sense of spectral foreboding by Mark Burton, the scenic design created an appropriate feeling of loss, grief and longing for something that exists beyond the corporeal realm.

One questionable element was the presence of non-singing actor Kirsten Harvey, representing the ghost of the dead, beloved Marie. Elegantly costumed by Terese Wadden in a white sheath, she cut a lithe figure, and Fein frequently placed her on the orchestra podium, suggesting her function as the story’s prime mover. While not ultimately detrimental, it was a distracting touch that occasionally put too fine a point on an opera in which delicacy and insinuation are virtues of storytelling.

Kirsten Harvey (Marie's Ghost) and Clay Hilley (Paul)
© Stephanie Berger

The singers onstage could hardly be bettered. Paul’s tessitura lies astonishingly high, but it proved child’s play for American tenor Clay Hilley, who dispatched the long and punishing part with practiced ease. Moreover, he conquered the role without sacrificing tonal beauty or musical intelligence, and he offered a skillfully acted portrait of a man in the grip of his ghosts. He was well matched by soprano Sara Jakubiak, another American now heard mostly in Germany, a vocally and dramatically committed Marietta/Marie. Her instrument – essentially a spinto with dramatic potential – contained the right blend of fleetness and heft for this deceptively difficult part. (A very last-minute replacement for the originally announced Allison Oakes, Jakubiak deserves special kudos for crafting a fully formed characterization on such short notice.)

As Frank/Fritz, the fast-rising baritone Alexander Elliott showed the Bard audience that he’s clearly a singer to watch. The supporting roles were all cast from strength. Although mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel occasionally dipped too deeply into vibrato, she proved a formidable presence as Brigitta. Soprano So Young Park, mezzo Rebecca Ringle Kamarei, and tenors Richard Troxell and William Ferguson made notable contributions – as did the Bard Festival Chorale, under James Bagwell’s fine preparation.

So Young Park, Rebecca Ringle Karamei, Alexander Elliott, Richard Troxell and Sara Jakubiak
© Stephanie Berger

The conducting proved more of a mixed bag. For a maestro who tends to favor expansive – and occasionally lugubrious – tempos, Botstein frequently rushed the orchestra and singers in bewildering ways. The opera’s two famous tunes – “Marietta’s Lied” (“Glück, das mir verblieb”) and the Pierrot’s “Tanzlied” (“Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen”) – lacked nuance and proper shaping of their intricate musical phrases. The orchestra played with distinction throughout, but one wondered what could have been achieved with a different conductor.

Still, the capacity crowd greeted the performance’s conclusion with sustained, appreciative and well-earned applause. There is clearly an audience for Korngold, and especially for this work. It’s time for the major US opera companies to make it a repertory staple.