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Korngold, Die tote Stadt: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Conductor: Ingo Metzmacher. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. 27.1.2009 (JPr)

Nadja Michael (Marietta) and Stephen Gould (Paul)

There is a Korngold revival of sorts just now and it seems this is more due to the need for the opera houses to find something new and attractive to audiences rather than to the value of the works themselves.  Last year at the Royal Festival Hall with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Jurowski there was a very unfortunate, to say the least, performance of Korngold’s fourth opera, Das Wunder der Heliane (see review).  Now nearly ninety years after a double - yes double - première in Hamburg and Cologne, Die tote Stadt, has finally reached the UK - although there was apparently a semi-professional concert attempt at it in 1996 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) is inspired by the 1892 novel Bruges-la-Morte by the Belgian writer Georges Rodenbach. In the introduction to his translation into English, Philip Mosley stated that the book is ‘generally recognized as a major work of… the symbolist movement’. I am no expert on this movement but loss and longing seem to be frequent themes, although quite what Rodenbach had against Bruges is not particularly evident. He also turned this story into a play, Le Mirage which was subsequently translated into German by Siegfried Trebitsch as Das Trugbild (1921) and it was this that became the source material for Die tote Stadt. The names of the leading characters and the plot were revised by the two Korngolds, father and son, who wrote the libretto themselves. As a music critic Julius Korngold’s involvement would have had an obvious conflict of interest if he was seen to be involved in his son Erich’s  opera,  so the libretto was credited to him under the nom de plume, Paul Schott.  Korngold’s publisher, was also called Schott and Paul is the protagonist of the opera.

The opera is inspired by fin-de-siècle Vienna, the world of Klimt, Freud and Schnitzler, the Secession artists and musicians such as Gustav Mahler and Alexander von Zemlinsky. That world was poised on a precipice and would soon descend into the abyss of the World War I and become, to all purposes,  snuffed out. Against this background the acknowledged young prodigy Erich Wolfgang Korngold grew up and it is to this lost world that his music looks back with longing. By the age of 10 Korngold  had played his own music for Gustav Mahler who did more than say that the boy was a genius; he also arranged for him to study with Zemlinsky.

Die tote Stadt was also conceived in the shadow of Sigmund Freud's theories about the interpretation of dreams as sources of insight into unconscious desires. Dreams can become mechanisms through which the dreamer attempts to makes sense of the complexities of a reality in which they exist and the rather slim plot of Die tote Stadt is about Paul trying to do just that.

Paul’s wife, Marie, has died at a very young age. He has been in mourning since her death for seemingly quite a while. He has shut himself off from the world, turning the main room in his house in Bruges (the ‘dead city’ of the title) into a ‘temple of memories’, in which he worships her portraits and a braid of her ‘golden blond hair’. He must leave the room sometime as he has met a woman on the street who bears an uncanny resemblance to Marie and he invites her to come and visit him. She is Marietta, a dancer in a troupe currently visiting Bruges to perform Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable. The two share a song about faithful love (the tuneful ‘Glück, das mir verblieb’). Paul’s mind is in turmoil believing  that Marie is back from the dead and we are soon transported into Paul’s dream world in which Marie basically tells him to move on. Paul begins a pursuit of Marietta, encountering all of the raunchy members of her performing troupe in the process. After a night together,  Marietta ridicules both Paul's religious piety and continuing attachment to Marie. When she wears Marie's hair, Paul goes mad and strangles her to death with it. Marietta become another Marie and  Willy Decker’s staging rather ambiguousy suggests that foul play may have been Marie’s downfall too.

Die tote Stadt was a great success at its premières and the subsequent performances in the 1920s marking the high point of Korngold’s career when he was only 23. Before the current renewed interest in him began he was often thought of primarily as a composer of film scores. His movie music remains some of the finest of all time, because  almost single-handedly he created the symphonic sound of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Since Korngold fell foul of the Nazis in Austria, he fled to the US so his opera sank into relative obscurity. In Vienna after the Second World War,  Korngold’s attempts to re-establish himself were unsuccessful even though the city had given the ‘prodigy’ some astonishing early triumphs.

Willy Decker’s production of Die tote Stadt has already done the rounds, having been  seen first in 2004 at the Salzburg Festival:  it  has been given  in Vienna, Amsterdam, Barcelona and San Francisco before arriving at Covent Garden. The production is a fairly straightforward affair though little is of course seen of Bruges. Wolfgang Gussman's set is a rectangular, windowless box with black walls with some indecipherable words written on them. There is a raised floor, a white tilted ceiling and  a door stage right. There are a couple of armchairs in the set and Paul is constantly on stage from the beginning, remaining  there until the very end of the opera even though the the libretto suggests that he supposed to make his entrance later - at least according to how the housekeeper Brigitta, greets Paul's friend Frank.  Paul spends most of the time slumped in one chair or other clutching either a huge portrait of his dead wife or her hair,  which reappears in Act III in a reliquary. At the end of Act I when Paul hallucinates about Marie/Marietta,  the back wall vanishes to reveal an exact replica of the set,  though placed much further back of course.

Acts II and III are therefore predominantly in this parallel world. At the start of Act II Decker gives us a sight of Bruges when Paul's friend Frank reappears as Fritz, a rival for Marietta's love, sitting on a large blue monopoly-like house which moves with some others across the stage. If the music and the motivations of the characters did not already remind one sufficiently of Strauss’s Salome,  then as Act II continues we see something from Ariadne auf Naxos with a actress trying to rehearse with her Harlequin troupe. In a send-up of the Nuns' scene from Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable, we see Paul's housekeeper, Brigitta, on a large cross telling Paul that she is going to church. Little else changes for Act III though we get more pictures of Marie's face and there is another religious procession.

The dream therefore began at the end of Act I with Marie telling Paul their love lives on in the past, present and future and it continues through to Act III until just after Marietta's death. This is excellently realized by Decker as he distorts the physical space on the stage and here,  as well as with characterisation, shadows and lighting,  he gives us more than a hint of German Expressionist cinema from  the time of the opera’s composition. At the denouément in Act III,  Decker restores order to the set and from this we understand that Paul is now back in the real world. It becomes fully clear to him that the Marietta he met has nothing to do with Marie and so he is ready to leave his ‘dead city’ and return to life. True to Freudian theory, Paul finally realises that he must make the best of what life has to offer and is ‘cured’.

Korngold’s score is undoubtedly rich and colourful; shimmering here and blaring out there but it basically soars away like  Strauss with the vocal line of the two principals often enmeshed within thick musical textures.’ The singers use punctuating stratospheric high notes ad nauseam which too often fragments any suggestion of lyrical sweep. There are only a few sections of pure melody -   the occurrences of Marietta’s lute song and the Pierrot's song in Act II wonderfully delivered by Gerald Finley  - who sang Frank and also Fritz, the actor. These are outstanding songs and are rightly famous as stand alone pieces but the problem is the music that stitches, or rather really doesn’t stitch, everything else together.  Admittedly the music for Paul's slide into his dream state is descriptive and at the end of Act II Marietta seduces Paul to other highly evocative music – evocative that is of Tristan Act II. Likewise moments of ‘colour’ in the score hint at an eclectic mix of references in Korngold’s music comprising, for instance, the xylophone from Turandot, the  glockenspiel from Die Zauberflöte, the wind machine from Der fliegende Holländer and the bells from Parsifal.

Ingo Metzmacher is not someone I have particularly admired when I have seen him conduct concerts but I was certainly full of admiration for the way that he kept control of the proceedings and never swamped the singers. The controlled playing of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House evidenced the detailed musical preparation that must have taken place. I suspect that some of  Korngold's bluster and grandeur must have been sacrificed to the overall balance but I doubt whether anything really important had been lost as a result of concentrating on clarity.

The demand on the leading two singers is immense and there is a supporting cast of minor roles all well sung by a very international cast. Kathleen Wilkinson, the only Brit present, was slightly quavery as Brigitta, an effect that I hoped was her portrayal of the role of the caring and pious housekeeper. Even doubling up as Frank and Fritz, Canadian baritone Gerald Finley had little to sing but he had an stage immense presence and sang everything beautifully.

German soprano Nadja Michael as Marie but mainly Marietta is lithe, predatory, and bald-headed for most of the time and so quite Nosferatu-like, she frequently throws herself at Paul often legs akimbo. She basically acts the same neurotic personality as her recent Salome at Covent Garden. But however good an actress she might be, the voice is a problem. As a former mezzo she does not have the support for the bright top notes she needs, her intonation is all over the place and I rarely heard a word of the German libretto. This is a case of casting more by what a singer looks like rather than by voice.

Fortunately,  there is that choice with dramatic sopranos but not so with tenors of the same Fach. American tenor Stephen Gould was, I understand, apparently unwell at the dress rehearsal but did attempt to sing. It is unlikely that he can have made a complete recovery by this first night so his performance was undoubtedly heroic. There was sharpness and stridency to his first exclamations and his voice never gained much warmth until the Tristan-esque moments at the end of Act II. Despite this, throughout Acts I and II he revealed a voice that is capable of some rare delicate control when Korngold allows him the chance. In Act III he was in fuller voice and showed a palpable jealous rage by some committed acting which made this act the best of the three for both him and the opera.

In the 1920s Korngold’s favourite Paul was Richard Tauber one of the greatest singers of the twentieth century - although I believe with  a warm lyrical voice and not a Heldentenor. This hints at performing practices we have lost or cannot  deliver now, because I wondered whether Paul could have been sung more lyrically and romantically employing more head voice and mezza voce but this is not within Mr Gould’s compass. I suspect that to hear Paul sung as Korngold wanted,  would require a Domingo in his prime.

So to my mind,  Die tote Stadt is an operatic curiosity, worth hearing once but probably then best left until another generation needs to hear something different at the opera for a change.

Jim Pritchard

Picture © Bill Cooper

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