Numi Opera, which is devoted to mounting neglected early 20th century operas by politically persecuted composers, is the new kid in town. Erich Wolfgang Korngold, the father of the symphonic film score, is hardly that. But Numi’s concert performance of Korngold’s obscure first opera, “Der Ring des Polykrates,” at Zipper Hall on Thursday night to conclude its first season, did indeed prove a revelation.
That is not to say that this 72-minute one-act comic opera from 1914, written by a 17-year-old composer hailed in Vienna as a potential next Mozart, is a forgotten masterpiece. Nor did the meager attendance at this first of two performances demonstrate all that much local interest in Korngold, despite the fact that the composer, who died at his home in Toluca Lake in 1957 at age 60, is enjoying a major international revival.
You want crowds, you know where to find them, lining up for “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.” But if you want to know why there is the “Star Wars” phenomenon at all, “Polykrates” is full of clues.
There is, indeed, something deeply touching that “Polykrates” would have its first Los Angeles performance the week that the latest “Star Wars” film, the ninth and last to be scored by John Williams, opens. It has long been recognized that “Star Wars” music pays homage to Korngold. Even more touching is that this comes as Williams makes his belated conducting debut with the Vienna Philharmonic in January.
At the time of its premiere in Munich by no less than Bruno Walter, “Polykrates” was seen as having all the hallmarks of a born opera composer. A century later, Munich may have had a hit with a new production of Korngold’s third and only popular opera, “Die Tote Stadt,” staring Jonas Kaufmann, but “Polykrates” more realistically reveals all the hallmarks not of a born-redundant opera composer but a born-relevant film composer, which the Jewish composer became when forced to flee Nazi Vienna in the 1930s.
“Polykrates” is a romantic comedy, which turned out to be unusual for the composer whose celebrated film scores — such as “Anthony Adverse,” “The Adventures of Robin Hood” and “The Sea Hawk” — tended toward drama, adventure and epic. But Korngold had a light touch, a quick musical wit and an ear for sparkle, and it showed early on. Otherwise Straussian sweep was his bread and butter in his youth, along with sentimental melody.
The opera has a complicated comic plot that is all diversion. Critics who didn’t buy into the Korngold sensation worried about this facile youth who didn’t responded to the world around him, seemingly oblivious to the fact that Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” and Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire” revolutionized music the year before “Polykrates,” let alone the storm clouds in a world heading toward war. Rather Korngold followed Strauss into nostalgia. Musically and thematically, “Polykrates” has a lot in common with “Der Rosenkavalier” and “Ariadne auf Naxos.”
The setting is the 18th century. Happy, happy, happy Wilhelm Arndt is a new husband with an adoring wife, Laura. He has inherited a tidy sum, and he is the new court music director. He has a happy assistant, Florian, who is in love with the Arndts’ happy chambermaid, Lieschen. Blessing are counted all around in surging vocal lines and sprays of color from the orchestra, as they are in one dopey line after another in the libretto.
Enter Peter, Wilhelm’s old friend and Laura’s old flame. Down on his luck, Peter convinces Wilhelm that — as he read in Schiller’s poem, “The Ring of Polykrates” — the gods of good fortune require sacrifice. You can’t have everything. A good place to start is by disrupting a happy marriage. This leads to all the conventional misunderstandings of comic opera, a couple of slaps in the face and an outcome in which Wilhelm and Laura, as do Florian and Lieschen, mature and deepen in this best of all possible worlds. Peter exits, tail between his legs. The adolescent Wunderkind Korngold has little love for losers.
The most finely drawn character is Laura, to whom the excellent soprano Shana Blake Hill brings a feasibly coy rectitude. The feckless Wilhelm can be a little hard to bear but, given stentorian honor by the strong tenor Scott Ramsay, he ever so slowly becomes more sympathetic.
Alex Boyer and Emily Rosenberg add needed perkiness to the other pair of lovers. Roberto Perlas Gomez’s Peter is delightfully up to his tricks.
The singers perform at music stands in front of the orchestra, but they’re costumed in 1950s outfits to suggest updating, and Gail R. Gordon, Numi’s founder and director, saw to it they stayed in character throughout.
A big plus is the orchestra, eagerly conducted by Francesco Milioto. Many of the members are veteran L.A. freelance musicians who work in the studios and take to Korngold like the natives they are.
From “Give Us This Night” in 1936 at the beginning of his Hollywood career to “The Constant Nymph,” “Deception” and “Escape Me Never” — three of his four last film scores a decade later — Korngold was drawn to stories about musicians. After those last films he spent his final decade composing for the concert hall.
Among his major works was his impressive Symphony in F-Sharp, written between 1947 and 1952. Just as his early operas in Vienna were out of step with their times, so was the symphony when it premiered. Now it is almost a repertory work, and a jubilant new recording by the Sinfonia of London, conducted by John Wilson, has made it in a number of year-end lists. It is the score that most inspired Williams’ “Star Wars” music. We’ve come full circle.
‘Der Ring des Polykrates’
When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday
Running time: 1 hour, 12 minutes