True love is indestructible, and perhaps the more it is tested, the stronger it becomes. This is what should be remembered from “Die Kathrin”, the 1937 operetta by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957). The Austrian Jewish composer first established himself as a child prodigy. His most famous opera, “Die tote Stadt (The Dead City”), premiered in Germany when he was just 23, and he spent much of the 1920s re-orchestrating and rearranging operettas by Johann Strauss II.
“Die Kathrin” is now getting its US premiere as part of the ten-day multi-faceted Korngold Festival which ends April 10. It is presented as part of a collaboration between the University of Chicago and Chicago’s popular operetta company designed to explore the life and work of the composer. And while this was Korngold’s last opera, it was by no means the end of his career. In a stroke of good luck and perfect timing, he was able to escape the fate of many of his contemporaries – Jewish composers murdered during the Holocaust. And he quickly found fame and fortune in Hollywood where he provided the music for 16 films (including “The Adventures of Robin Hood”, “Sea Hawk” and “Of Human Bondage”). He was proclaimed “founder of film music”.
“Die Kathrin”, with a libretto by Ernst Decsey (edited by Korngold’s wife, Luzi, in a vain attempt to appease Nazi censors), is a story of love at first sight, the trials and tribulations that two young lovers must endure through their years of separation and finally the great joy that accompanies a happy ending. Its production here is the grandest effort undertaken by Folks Operetta, a company which, since its founding in 2006, has been dedicated to the revival of Viennese and American operettas.
Last Thursday evening, gathered on the stage of the Reva and David Logan Center’s Performance Hall for a semi-stage, concert-style production led by Elizabeth Margolius, a dozen superb singers/actors and an impressive young orchestra led by the impeccable conductor conductor, Anthony Barrese (Artistic Director of Opera Southwest). Together they captured Korngold’s luxuriously romantic, character-driven score, which was sung in German (and bits of French), with English supertitles unfolding on a back wall enlivened by the projection design. colored by Rasean Davonte Johnson.
In the center of the opera is Kathrin (soprano Ann Toomey), a young Swiss worker who meets François (tenor Corey Bix), near a cinema where girls are only allowed to enter if they are accompanied by a man . There is a bit of a language barrier between them (she speaks German and he speaks French), but the passion is not lacking. However, almost immediately after their love, François must leave for compulsory military service in Algiers. And while he promises to get back to her as soon as possible, she is devastated and soon realizes she is pregnant.
Determined to find François, Kathrin, rather naive and unworldly, sets out on her own for the first time. Although she learns that he works at a nightclub in Marseille, she is prevented from seeing him by the club’s lewd owner, Malignac (baritone Mark Delavan), who wants Kathrin for him. This inflames the rage of her current lover, Chou Chou (coloratura soprano Stacey Tappan). It is Chou Chou who goes on to murder Malignac, but it is François who ends up serving time in prison for the crime.
Eventually, François and Kathrin are reunited and join a delightful duo. But in many ways, the opera’s most emotional moment comes when the couple’s five-year-old son, “little Francis” (beautifully played by Lydia Costello), meets his father for the very first time.
The remaining performance of “Die Kathrin” is Saturday, April 9 at 7:30 p.m. at the Logan Center at the University of Chicago, 915 E. 60th St.
For more details on the Korngold Festival, which runs until April 10, visit korngoldfestival.org.
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