UC’s Korngold Festival soars with belated U.S. premiere of “Die Kathrin”

Fri Apr 08, 2022 at 3:45 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Ann Toomey in the title role and Corey Bix as François in Korngold’s Die Kathrin, presented in its U.S. premiere Thursday night at the Logan Center. Photo: Anthony Nguyen

At a time in the arts when good intentions are often more highly lauded than successful results, the University of Chicago would deserve kudos just for hosting the belated U.S. debut of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s final opera 83 years after its premiere.

But the performance of Die Kathrin presented by Folks Operetta Thursday night at the Logan Center—the main event of UC’s “Korngold Rediscovered” festival—proved not only a worthy piece of musico-historical exhumation but an outstanding success in its own right. With a superb cast of singers and idiomatic conducting, this lively, smartly staged concert performance presented a strong and convincing case for opera-house revival of Korngold’s work—more so than the only (uneven) recording.

Die Kathrin seemed ill-fated from its origins. The simple love story between a German girl and Belgian soldier was rejected by the Nazi censors at the planned 1938 premiere in Vienna, even after Kathrin’s nationality was changed to Swiss to appease them. The premiere took place in Stockholm in 1939 where Kathrin was panned. Korngold’s opera finally had its Vienna premiere after the war in 1950 but even with a cast of top singers of the era—Maria Reining, Karl Friedrich and Otto Edelmann— reviews were tepid. The opera has languished in obscurity for the past three-quarters of a century, even after a recording was released in 1998 (cpo).

Die Kathrin does have issues—a lightweight libretto, rickety structure and plot coincidences that are preposterous even by genre standards. Kathrin meets the singer-turned-soldier François at a French cinema and the two fall in love within seconds. They are separated as François marches off to war. Kathrin searches for him and both separately wind up in a Marseilles cabaret where François is singing and where the sleazy owner Malignac has taken the naive (and secretly pregnant) Kathrin to seduce her. After a confrontation between the briefly reunited couple and proprietor, Malignac is shot and killed by his jealous mistress Monique; in the confusion the lovers each think the other has committed the murder. François is arrested and sent to prison. Five years later Kathrin and her young son are living in the Swiss mountains where she runs an inn, always setting an extra place for a mysterious guest. A wandering minstrel happens upon the boy, and the stranger turns out to be François. The couple is reunited and—after working through their mutual confusion, guilt and self-recrimination over the Marseilles murder—Kathrin, François and their son are reunited for good.

I know, I know. But improbable and awkward as the libretto may be, Die Kathrin is packed with magnificent music, from soaring arias to swaggering soldiers’ marches and even some jazzy cabaret music—all masterfully scored for large orchestra in Korngold’s most lushly opulent style. Kathrin’s Act I letter aria in which she writes a note to François saying she cannot see him again—is drop-dead beautiful, with the melody reprised at subsequent crucial moments. One would have a heart of stone not to be affected by the final reprise of Kathrin’s theme at the end of the opera where she and her lover are together again at last.

After a somewhat mixed night of Korngold lieder last Saturday, the Folks Operetta folks rose to the occasion superbly for the festival’s main event. High praise to the hardy company’s married cofounders Gerald Frantzen and Alison Kelly, the first-class conducting of Anthony Barrese and all involved for bringing off this important revival with such strong vocalism and theatrical panache.   

In the title role Ann Toomey delivered the goods both vocally and dramatically. The former Lyric Opera Ryan Center alumna possesses a rich, creamy soprano as luscious and expansive as Korngold’s orchestration. Top notes were sometimes piercing in the narrow room but she delivered a lovely rendition of Kathrin’s letter aria and fulfilled all the high-flying challenges of this role.

Concert stagings can be awkward compromises, especially here with a heroine who sometimes seems naive to the point of doltishness. (“To him! To him!” Kathrin sings to anyone who will listen.) But Toomey succeeded in making the innocent girl a compelling, three-dimensional character, always alive and responsive to the often-fantastical situations.

As François, Corey Bix was less involved dramatically, approaching the demanding assignment more as a straight concert sing, rendered with an unvaried expression of pained earnestness. But vocally, Bix was up to the score’s Heldentenor demands, singing ardently with big heroic tone and clarion top notes throughout. The tenor seemed to tire vocally near the end of the long evening, although Bix did provide some belated characterization in the climactic reconciliation.  

It was rich casting indeed to have Mark Delavan, a veteran Wagnerian of the world’s top opera stages, on hand as the malignant Malignac. Delavan brought a booming bass-baritone and larger-than-life relish to the role of the lascivious club owner—a kind of junior-league Scarpia—delivering his Act 2 aria with imposing volume and villainy.

The singers in the many supporting roles were all lively and characterful, a testament to the depth of talent on Folks Operetta’s bench.

As Chou-Chou, the slatternly cabaret chanteuse who is infatuated with François, Stacey Tappan was a hoot in her zebra-skin gown and white boa. The soprano made a star turn of her brief role with vivid singing and a delightfully over-the-top characterization. Jordan Weatherston Pitts likewise displayed a vibrant juicy tenor and brought personality-plus energy to the roles of the Ticket-Seller and the rejected Tailor who loves Kathrin (the latter role, rather less convincingly).

Katherine Petersen etched a fine cameo as Kathrin’s passive-aggressive friend Margot who is jealous of her romance with François. Robin Bradley made admirable impact as Monique, Malignac’s justifiably suspicious mistress. And Brian Hupp and William Roberts showed their versatility, each tackling a pair of small roles.

Having child actors on stage—in musical theater especially—is fraught with peril. But Lydia Costello as the young François, hit all her marks like a pro and sang sweetly in her brief vocal moment. The men’s and women’s choruses–always performing apart–made vivid contributions beyond their numbers as soldiers, dancers and village girls.

Folks Operetta music director Barrese was the unsung star of this performance, providing first-class advocacy for this big, complex score. At times one wanted more sumptousness in the strings, but Barrese handled this rhapsodic music with consummate skill, keeping the evening on track with surging momentum without ever allowing the large orchestra to swamp the singers. There were isolated instrumental fluffs early in the evening but the playing grew in security and polish as the performance unfolded. Concertmaster Rachel Brown brought gleaming tone and Hollywood glamour to Korngold’s glimmering violin solos.

With a few small trims—mostly of material from secondary characters—and a single intermission, the evening was kept under three hours. 

Stage director Elizabeth Margolius provided a seminar in how to stage a difficult opera in concert. With two ramps leading through the orchestra to the front of the stage, she handled the traffic flow of the large cast with variety and efficiency. While the cast sang mostly from stands, the director added an inspired touch by having Toomey and Bix sing to each other directly in the final scene, making the impact of their ultimate reunion both visually and musically effective.

Rasean Davonte Johnson’s well-chosen projections opened up the Logan Center, with enlarged photos of a French cinema, war-torn buildings, and falling snow setting the scenes as needed. Charles Cooper’s evocative lighting highlighted the action nicely as well.

There is one repeat performance Saturday and all fans of Korngold, opera and operetta, and Late Romantic music in general are urged to catch Die Kathrin. Hearing this neglected Korngold gem live is a rare opportunity that will not pass this way again.

Die Kathrin will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the University of Chicago’s Logan Center. korngoldfestival.org

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