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Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Die Tote Stadt (1920)
An opera in three acts, libretto by Paul Schott (a.k.a. Julius Korngold)
Angela Denoke (Marietta), Torsten Kerl (Paul), Yuri Batukov (Frank), Birgitta Svendsen (Birgitta), Barbara Baier (Juliette), Julia Oesch (Lucienne), Christian Baumgärtel (Victorin), Stephan Genz (Fritz).
Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg/Ching-Lien Wu
Chorus of the Opera National de Rhin/Jan Latham-Koenig
Inga Levant, stage director, Charles Edwards, set and lighting design, Magali Gerberon, costumes.
DVD produced by Francois Duplat, Film direction but Don Kent. Produced in 2001 for the Opera National de Rhin.
ARTHAUS MUSIC 100342[145 minutes, 4 seconds]

 

Erich Wolfgang Korngold was one of the most prodigious talents of his generation. No lesser light than Richard Strauss hailed compositions by the then eleven-year-old composer as perfect. When at age twenty-three, his first full scale opera opened in not one, but two major opera houses, it was nothing short of sensational. Although he would become both famous and rich in Hollywood composing film scores for such classic pictures as Anthony Adverse and The Seahawk, Korngold left behind a considerable output of serious scores. With a penchant for lush harmonic textures (he highly favored sharp keys, frequently going as far afield as f-sharp and c-sharp major) and for colorful orchestration, he was a natural for the big epic movies that he scored.

The opera Die Tote Stadt, based on the 1892 cult novel Bruges-la-morte by Georges Rodenbach is a sadly underplayed masterpiece. Banned by the Nazi regime, it lay dormant for many years in spite of its initial successes. Erich Leinsdorf resurrected it in the sixties, and recorded the work with René Kollo and Carol Van Ness, and this remains the only studio produced recording of the work on the market. (Naxos has a live version in its catalogue, but its hit and miss vocal casting is a detriment.) In addition to its colorful orchestral writing and captivating "in and out of reality" plot design, this opera is possessed of one of, if not the most beautiful romantic aria in the repertoire. Marietta’s Lied from act one, later reprised by Paul at the finale is one of the most hauntingly memorable operatic tunes ever composed.

This production, which owes homage to expressionist film-makers the likes of Walter Reimann and Walter Rohrig (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari), and Fritz Lang (M, Metropolis) is an effective portrayal of the psychological turmoil that afflicts our protagonist Paul, who is obsessed with the memory of his dead wife. The lapses between the world of dreams and reality overlap at will, and the spectator can become confused if he has a short attention span. Set, lighting and costume design are brilliant here and the quality of the picture reproduction on this DVD is astounding. Particularly noteworthy is the set design of the bar scene in Act two, where Marietta and her theatrical cohorts reenact a scene pattered after Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable. In a very Caligari-esque move, set designer Charles Edwards creates a scene that is out of balance with a bar that slants downward and tables and chairs that are out of proportion. Magali Gerberon’s magnificently outrageous costumes cap off a scene that is gripping and interesting from the get go.

Of course, what is opera without fine singing? Not to fear, we get it here in abundance. Torsten Kerl is superb as the tormented Paul. His is a large but not unwieldy voice that is capable of absolutely radiant beauty. He has magnificent control over his high register and can sing a messa di voce that would be the envy of any baroque specialist. There is a tendency for him to employ the old big tenor "hook and push" when he sings forte passages, and this becomes an annoyance from time to time. Overall however, his singing is outstanding, and his portrayal of the character is believable albeit a bit over the top at times.

Angela Denoke is also possessed of a rich lyric sound with ample heft to keep up with both her stage mates and the huge Korngold orchestra. Her portrayal of the flirtatious Marietta is wonderful to watch. If one could quibble at all, it would be to say that her enunciation leaves something to be desired, and one tires of hearing her distort vowels beyond recognition, particularly when she is in her upper register. Taking into consideration the formidable length of the role and the amount of energy it must take to keep up such strong singing over so large an orchestra, one can hardly blame the poor woman for the occasional vowel alteration.

The other singing standout is Stephan Genz, whose Act II Pierrot’s Tanzlied is ravishing. Yuri Batukov’s Frank is well sung, but his character(s) are not particularly memorable. The Strasbourg Orchestra is phenomenal, and Jan Latham-Koenig is a conductor whose career will hopefully soon gain more international recognition. An excellently detailed program note enhances this already fine production. Why, I wonder, are there no libretti in DVD opera productions? This would be a good addition.

For fans of big romantic opera, this is a must. Recommended without hesitation.

Kevin Sutton

see also review by Ian Lace



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