> Korngold: Die Tote Stadt [IL]: Classical CD Reviews- Nov 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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This is a large file comprising not only comparative reviews of two recordings of Korngold’s opera Die tote Stadt: a new ARTHAUS DVD video recording and the 1975 RCA Leinsdorf world premiere CD set, but also background information
The file comprises:-


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Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Die tote Stadt (1916-20)
Opera in three Acts
The DVD (new release)
Marietta…............….Angela Denoke (sop)
Paul………...............Torsten Kerl (ten)
Frank……………….Yuri Batukov (bar)
Brigitta…………..… Brigitta Svenden (alto)
Juliette ……………...Barbara Beier (sop)
Lucienne…………….Julia Oesch (mezzo)
Victorin……………..Christian Baumgärtel (ten)
Fritz…………………Stephan Genz (bar)
Chorus of the Opéra National du Rhin
Philharmonic Orchestra of Strasbourg conducted by Jan Latham Koenig
Recorded from the Opéra National du Rhin, 2001
Surround Sound
ARTHAUS DVD 100 342 [145 mins]


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The CD (established release)
Paul………………….René Kollo (ten)
Marietta/Apparition of Marie……Carol Neblett (sop)
Frank…………… .....Benjamin Luxon (bar)
Brigitta… …………...Rose Wagemann (alto)
Fritz………………....Hermann Prey (ten)
Juliette……………....Gabriele Fuchs (sop)
Lucienne………….....Patricia Clark (mezzo)
Gaston/Victorin……...Anton de Ridder (ten)
Count Albert……….. Willi Brokmeier (bar)
Bavarian Radio Chorus and the Munich Radio Orchestra
Conducted by Erich Leinsdorf
Recorded in the Bavarian Radio Concert Hall in June 1975
Digitally remastered edition produced by Charles Gerhardt
Note this recording is not new it was first released in 1975/76
RCA VICTOR GD87767 (2) [137.14]



I will nail my colours to the mast immediately and admit that I abhor clever, clever modern versions of operas that destroy the spirit and intent of their original productions. The latest to incur my wrath is this ARTHAUS production of Korngold’s Die tote Stadt (The Dead City). Since this work is of great interest to visitors of both MusicWeb and its sister site Film Music on the Web, I am including contrasting reviews of both this DVD and the acclaimed 1975 RCA Erich Leinsdorf world premiere audio recording to demonstrate the difference, for this reviewer anyway, between the sublime and the ridiculous.

[Granted the original book, on which Die tote Stadt was based, was colder and more horrific without the life-affirming ending of Korngold’s opera. This might explain not only the Opéra National du Rhin’s relentlessly down-beat and more brutal production but also the concept behind other more recent ‘creative’ productions. One (Götz Friedrich in Berlin) had Paul interpreted as a possible serial killer with overtones of sado-masochism and in an American production, Marie and Marietta respectively resembled Kim Basinger and Marilyn Monroe! -- More on the Hollywood connection (and Marilyn) follows throughout this article/review]

Background to the Opera and connections with Wagner, Bernard Herrmann and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo

     Korngold 1919

Die tote Stadt was the most successful of Korngold’s operas – an amazing achievement for a young man still not twenty when he began its composition. It was simultaneously premiered in Hamburg and Cologne on 4th December 1920. The premiere in Hamburg was a sensation and it became one of the most popular operas in the Hamburg repertory with well over fifty performances; in fact it was one of the most frequently performed of all contemporary operas. It appeared on more than 70 stages in Europe and America. ‘Marietta’s Lute Song’ and the ‘Pierrotlied’ became smash hits and favourite encores in their own right.

Die tote Stadt began life as a horror story, a novella Bruges-la-Morte by the Belgian symbolist writer Georges Rodenbach – a sort of free variation on the Celtic-derived myth Tristan und Isolde.

[One might conjecture whether this story influenced Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac in writing their novel D’Entre les Morts on which Alfred Hitchcock based his celebrated thriller Vertigo? The plot line of Vertigo shares many similarities with that of Die tote Stadt. In fact Bernard Herrmann’s celebrated score for this film, that has consistently entered the lists of best film of all time, has been observed to reflect Wagner’s Tristan… music, specifically the ‘Liebestod’ in Herrmann’s ‘Scène d’Amour’, in which the hapless Judy Barton (Kim Novak) is made over by Scottie (James Stewart) to look like his dead love, Madeleine. And Korngold’s score for Die tote Stadt employs the Wagnerian leitmotif style and there is more than a passing resemblance to Tristan… More on this theme later.]

"This cover illustration of the Schott publication of excerpts from Die tote Stadt, arranged for piano duet, depicts very well the sort of atmosphere which Korngold sought to portray the medieval city of Bruges with its dark streets, canals, processing nuns and tolling church bells."

The story of Die tote Stadt is set in the ancient Belgian town of Bruges, a dead-seeming city whose bells, still canal waters, gloomy gothic churches and old decaying houses are for Paul, the hero, constant reminders of death and impermanence. They are, for him, the symbol of his saintly dead wife Marie, and the past that he cannot forget. One room of his house has become a precious shrine to her memory in which he preserves furniture, photographs and a lute and above all a portrait of Marie and a braid of her golden hair. Paul lives alone save for his devoted housekeeper, Brigitta. Then, one day he meets a woman in the street. Her striking resemblance to his dead wife causes him to be overcome with strong conflicting emotions. He impulsively invites her home so that he might see the dead come to life…

Korngold uses a huge orchestra – the largest he ever used with much exotic percussion, piano, celesta, church organ and a harmonium for eerie effects, a wind machine, mandolin, sets of bells, and stage bands as well as a large chorus, separate children’s chorus, a chamber choir of 16 voices and eight additional female voices off-stage. The music is approachable and melodic. Indeed in the context of his operas, Korngold was dubbed the ‘Viennese Puccini’. The leading vocal parts, Paul and Marie/Marietta, are extremely demanding.

The 1975 RCA CD Leinsdorf/ Munich Radio Chorus and Orchestra review


From the brief opening opulent, exuberant orchestral peroration, it is at once apparent that Leinsdorf is conducting large forces in this 1975 RCA Victor recording. Alas, and this is a major disappointment and serious omission, the accompanying booklet carries just the story of the opera and the libretto in German and English. There are no notes about the history and production of the opera or about Korngold’s huge score. At that time this was particularly galling since there was very little Korngold documentation available. Luckily now, since the Korngold centenary year, 1997, two important new books on Korngold by Jessica Duchen and Brendan G.Carroll have been published that include a lot of detail about Die tote Stadt (see footnote to this article/review for full details about these two publications).

We first meet Brigitta, Paul’s housekeeper (mezzo-soprano Rose Wagemann) loyal and caring in her lovely, warm-hearted, supportive aria ‘Was das leben ist weiss ich nicht…’ in which she extols "And where love is, a woman like me can serve contented…" She is in the room that is Paul’s temple to Marie with Paul’s friend Frank (baritone Benjamin Luxon in fine voice recorded without any trace of the excessive vibrato that spoiled so many of his later performances). Paul bursts in, in great excitement after seeing Marietta who so resembles his deceased wife Marie. In his first aria, ‘Nein, nein, sie lebt’, Paul reveals his obsession with the dead Marie and his belief that she now lives again in Marietta. At first exultant, then romantically yet morbidly reflective this aria is a tour-de-force with Korngold’s brilliant harmonies and eerie atmospheric orchestrations. René Kollo, so brilliant in the role of Walther in the 1971 Karajan recording of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, here again impresses with his ringing ardent tones and sensitive musicianship. His Paul is a rounded character defiant and manly as well as obsessive.

Frank, concerned for his friend’s welfare, offers a warning and sensible advice in his expansive aria, "…Paul, you are playing a dangerous game. You are a dreamer. You see ghosts and phantoms – I see reality, I see women as they are…". But Paul will not listen and Frank exits. Frank is right: Marietta is quite unlike Marie. She is worldly and fun-loving. Korngold’s wonderfully rapt music rises from the orchestra as Paul awaits her arrival in ever mounting anticipation. But Marietta is annoyed by his apparent distraction - she cannot comprehend Paul’s introspection and persistent dreaming of Marie. Carol Neblett’s Marietta is exuberant and carefree as she says she lives to sing and dance. The orchestral accompaniment switches between the eerie ghostly world of Paul’s psyche and the lighter atmosphere of Marietta’s worldly outlook. When Paul shows her the lute that Marie played she sings the beautiful Lute Song ("Joy, sent from above…") that was the hit of the opera from the very first. The Kollo and Neblett duet that is a continuance of that aria is heart-rending indeed and again the orchestration scintillates.

Marietta demonstrates her flirty nature and goes off with her theatrical troupe friends with a lingering promise to the distracted Paul "Those who love me know where to find me. And they can see me dance at the opera." Act I ends as the opera’s action shifts from reality to the beginning of Paul’s hallucinatory visions. The ghost of Marie steps out of the picture (to eerily evocative music) to tell Paul that he is with her forever, that her braid of hair will guard him but that "Life comes to claim you, a new love beckons…". The apparition disappears and is replaced by another of Marietta in a hedonistic dance. Paul is ecstatic

. "
Maria Jeritza as Marietta and Orville Harrold as Paul pictured during the dress rehearsal of the 1921 New York Metropolitan Opera production of Die tote Stadt. Jeritza carries a guitar that stood in for a lute (Metropolitan Opera Archives)."

Act II is a continuation of Paul’s fevered dreaming. He wonders disconsolately by a canal close to Marietta’s house. In an extended orchestral interlude with brilliant orchestral effects (organ and wind machine included): huge bells toll and an oppressive gothic atmosphere hangs over all. The Bavarian players here, as they are throughout, are superb and the sound engineering stunning. Paul in another extended aria berates himself for prowling about after Marietta and "tasting bitter pleasures". He recalls purer, more innocent times. Brigitta, passing by, admonishes Paul for desecrating the memory of Marie and goes off to church. Frank appears and berates Paul too saying, "You are not right for her, you’re sharing death and life with her. She wants complete fulfilment. We are Harlequins who adore her and she is Columbine who seduces us and enslaves us." Paul’s jealousy is aroused when he realises that Frank has succumbed to Marietta’s charms too and declares that Frank is no longer his friend.

Marietta then approaches with her friends. They are in boats on the canal. They flirt and sing waltz songs. One admirer who Marietta has cast aside, Fritz, Marietta’s ‘Pierrot’, sings the other big hit number from the opera, "Mein Sehen, mein Wähnen…" (My dreaming, my yearning) in which he remembers young love and dancing "by the Rhine in moon’s golden shine". Baritone, Hermann Prey, I fear, is too solemn, too intense for this loveliest of waltz songs.

Marietta then suggests they rehearse Hélène’s scene from Robert le Diable in the streets. The sounds of an organ from a nearby cathedral, processing Beguine nuns and dark clouds form an ominous background for this heavily ironic scene as Marietta, acting as Hélène, rises from a coffin and dances seductively towards one of her admirers. This is another powerful set piece with horrifically evocative music from Korngold’s huge orchestra. Scandalised and outraged, Paul rushes from out of the shadows to curse Marietta and her friends. "You, a resurrected woman? Never?" Abashed and embarrassed, Marietta’s friends depart but Paul continues to hurl accusations at her and in doing so he reveals his suppressed emotions. Marietta is deeply hurt but decides to take up the struggle against her dead rival. She musters all her powers of persuasion and overcomes his protestations. But when he suggests they go to her house she replies "No, to yours, to her house". There she wishes to banish the ghost of Marie forever… The act concludes with another dramatic love duet.

Another ravishingly orchestrated Prelude opens Act III that continues Paul’s hallucinations. Marietta has spent the night with Paul in his house. In the early morning she enters Paul’s shrine and confronts Marie’s portrait. In a bitter aria she rounds angrily on the dead wife - "You, who are dead and buried; rest in peace and slumber. Don’t haunt the living … leave us to revel in joy and pleasure …" Marietta hears in the distance the purity of a children’s choir and rejoices in their supplication a brief glimpse at another side of Marietta’s complex personality.

Paul enters, suspicious of her presence in his ‘temple to Marie’ and immediately puts Marietta on the defensive. She is even more determined to dispel the ghost of Marie once and for all. Outside, the enlarging religious procession draws closer. Paul is alarmed that they will be seen together and pushes Marietta away from the window. This makes her taunt him even more in a coquettish aria full of spite in which she yearns for her carefree past with her admirers. She blasphemes the procession outside – "You keep them, your pious masqueraders!" The procession is right outside now and there is a tumultuous choral and orchestral climax with Paul commenting wondrously on the holy statues and banners. Marietta acquiesces to his mood and begs him to kiss her. Paul shocked draws back. "Not here, not now". "Yes here, now", she demands. Their subsequent quarrel becomes ever more heated (both chewing the scenery over vicious orchestral chords) and in the end Paul strangles Marietta with Marie’s braid of hair.

The stage darkens. Paul awakens from his dream. Brigitta enters to say that the real life Marietta has returned. She finds Paul silent and stunned by his dream. Thinking he is uninterested – she shrugs and goes away. Frank enters, notices Marietta’s departure and sees that the young dancer no longer fascinates Paul. This is the miracle he had wished for his friend. Paul agrees that he will never see Marietta again and that his nightmare had destroyed his dream of love, "The dead send dreams like that to haunt us if we don’t let them find peace in their slumber," he observes. Frank plans to leave Bruges and Paul agrees to go with him to find a new happier life. Paul’s final aria in which he pays a final farewell to Marie "Wait for me in heaven’s plain…" is sung to the same glorious tune as Marietta’s Lute Song of Act I.

"A scene from the original 1920 Hamburg production of Die tote Stadt. From left to right: Walter Diehl (Graf Albert); Josef Degler (Fritz) Anny Münchow (Marietta); Felix Rodemund (Gaston); and Paul Schwartz (Victorin)."

The depth of this review is intended so that a more effective comparison can be made between this conventional production that Korngold would have envisioned and that of the Opéra National du Rhin as presented on the ARTHAUS DVD ---


The 2001 DVD Video Opéra National du Rhin production review

First of all it should be recalled that Korngold is best remembered for his Warner Bros. film scores written in the 1930s and 40s principally for Bette Davis and Errol Flynn. This Opéra National du Rhin production team - Charles Edwards (set design and lighting) and Magali Gerberon (Costumes) - has clearly borne Korngold’s Hollywood/film connection in mind. And the close similarity between the stories of Die tote Stadt and Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo has not escaped them either. These influences pervade this production which frankly repels (although some aspects of it have a perverse fascination, especially in the second act). In many respects it goes against the spirit of the original production that Korngold knew and as described in the 1975 premiere CD recording reviewed above.

The Act I set showing Paul’s shrine to the memory of Marie is seedy and run-down. Part of the set looks as though a bomb has hit it. The treasured portrait of Marie leans against a wall rather than hanging in pride of place. Paul’s housekeeper Brigitta (Brigitta Svenden) is blonde, bespectacled and buttoned up in a high-collared oriental-style suit. She looks something between Midge (Barbara Bel Geddes), Scottie’s erstwhile girlfriend in Vertigo and Beatrice Lilly as the cantankerous, kidnapping landlady, Mrs Meers, in Thoroughly Modern Milly. Svenden, in her big aria in which she assures Frank she is happy in a house with an atmosphere of love (even dead love) is appealing but she is a little unsteady and in danger of being swamped by Korngold’s effulgent orchestrations.

A little later she is required to bring roses into the temple. She brings not live flowers but rose-decorated wallpaper. There is worse madness to come, folks.]

Frank (Yuri Batukov) is sturdy and comforting.

Paul, a heavy-jowled Torsten Kerl, wears trousers at half mast and has long blonde tresses that make him look like some demented Little Lord Fauntleroy. As Marietta arrives he is seen clutching a doll-effigy of Marie. He appears in front of Marietta looking like some miserable, self-pitying girl’s blouse -- no wonder she is non-plussed! At one point he even makes a quivering Stan Laurel look heroic. By the time he commits suicide at the end of the opera (yes, suicide, more about this clanger later), one has lost all patience and sympathy for him. Kerl’s voice is powerful enough to project above Korngold’s heaviest music but it lacks Kollo’s attractive timbre and his expressive subtlety.

Marietta has long wide curly blonde tresses and wears a decorated white Columbine-like dress and inelegant black footwear calculated to rile the fashion police. Angela Denoke’s acting is very persuasive and her bright voice projects strongly. Pity she is let down by the stage directions. One’s jaw drops in utter horror and disbelief at what happens next. Marie’s lute that Paul shows her is cast aside in favour of a piano accompaniment (played by some inexplicable character unconnected with the opera who just strolls on to the stage) as she sings Marietta’s Lute Song. As she sings Paul writhes on the floor, and, horror of horrors, pulls out of from a trapdoor beneath him a skeleton arm (belonging, one guesses to Marie) and proceeds to kiss it. Clearly the effect of this lovely aria is totally crushed but so too is Marietta’s joyful song a little later. Here she stands over a storm grating (in the middle of a room?) while upward air currents billow out her skirts like those of Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch (but Monroe played an innocent concerned only with keeping cool in a New York heat wave). Back to Vertigo: Saul Bass’s unsettling kaleidoscopic spiral patterns that were used for the film’s opening titles are seen here in a huge circle projected high to the right of the stage. This pattern blends into a close up of part of Marie’s face as her apparition informs Paul that a new love awaits him, as Act I ends.

Act II sets are equally bizarre, but fascinating, in keeping with Paul’s nightmare visions. The circle with Marie’s face fades and ghostly images of Bruges take their place with figures in medieval dress moving about the stage through the Prelude. Then a huge bell descends and a depressed Paul tries to hang himself from its rope but is dissuaded by passers-by. The bell lowers to the ground and turns over so that the audience is looking deep inside its dark circle. From inside, the image of Brigitta appears to disparage Paul. Then Frank appears on stage with a bushy red tail, red hair and horns – now clearly a devilish apparition. When Paul discerns that he has designs on Marietta too he kills Frank in a radical departure from the original opera story line. The Harlequinade that follows seems as though it is set in Las Vegas with neon lights and brassy bars. Marietta’s friends in garish costumes look as though they are fugitives from some Fellini film. Nuns tear off their habits and are seen in skirts resembling the Stars and Stripes. On the credit side, however, Fritz’s (Pierrot’s) aria sung by a lighter voiced Stephan Genz is spellbinding and much more moving than Hermann Prey is on the Leinsdorf CD.

Act III brings yet more visual horrors. The religious procession, in garish costumes and ghoulish make-up, seems to emanate from beneath the earth. Paul demonstrates his religious fervour and guilt by clinging, in a posture just short of blasphemy, to a large cross. This cross is tugged between an incensed Marietta and himself who taunts him so much that he kills her not with Marie’s braid of hair but a knife.

In this outrageous production one wonders if Paul ever awakes from his nightmare. Frank as a ghostly apparition appears still in his scarlet tail and horns to give him the knife which Paul uses on himself as he sings that final aria then falls in his death throes and blooded against a door marked NO EXIT. This ending of course runs totally contrary to the original opera’s life-affirming ending and purpose of Paul’s visions. It is all very sad because there is some fine singing and Jan Latham-Koenig, although not in the same class as Leinsdorf, delivers fine dramatic and atmospheric music from what I perceived to be rather smaller forces than in the RCA recording.


First this bizarre production prompts one to wonder how Korngold would have scored Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo had he survived into the 1950s and presuming, of course, that the master of suspense would have hired him. Not wishing to disparage Bernard Herrmann’s excellent score in any way, my guess is that the story would have fascinated Korngold and that he would not have been able to resist it. I think he would have brought a deeper insight into the predicaments of the characters of Scottie and Madeline/Judy Barton.

But to a final assessment of the two recordings.

The RCA premiere recording released in 1975 is unhesitatingly recommended. The lead roles (René Kollo and Carol Neblett) are sung with passion and conviction and the expanded Munich Radio Orchestra, recorded in spectacular sound, sounds magnificently opulent.

The new Arthaus DVD is, in comparison, weighed down with ridiculous, garish sets, costumes and effects (although there is no denying that sometimes they have a powerful fascination). Angela Denoke shines as Marietta/Marie despite everything that happens around her, and there is a memorable cameo from Stephan Benz as Fritz the Pierrot in one of the opera’s great hit numbers. But Torsten Kerl cannot match René Kollo in voice and his gross over-acting disappoints.

If you must watch the DVD just hire it from a library and buy the Leinsdorf recording to treasure.

Ian Lace

Further details about Die tote Stadt and the life and music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold may be found in the following two books:
The Last Prodigy – A biography of Erich Wolfgang Korngold

By Brendan G. Carroll
Published by Amadeus Press ISBN I–57467–029–8
Erich Wolfgang Korngold

By Jessica Duchen
Published in Phaidon Press’s 20th Century Composers series ISBN 0-7148-3155-7

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