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Erich Wolfgang KORNGOLD (1897-1957)
Die tote Stadt, Op 12 (1920)
Jonas Kaufmann, tenor (Paul), Marlis Petersen, soprano (Marietta, Marie), Andrej Filończyk, baritone (Frank, Fritz), Jennifer Johnston, mezzo-soprano (Brigitte), Mirjam Mesak, soprano (Juliette), Corinna Scheurle, soprano (Lucienne), Manuel Günther, tenor (Gaston, Victorin), Dean Power, tenor (Graf Albert)
Chorus and Children’s Chorus of Bavarian State Opera
Bavarian State Opera Orchestra/Kirill Petrenko
rec. Bavarian State Opera, December 2019
no extras
BSO RECORDINGS BSOREC1001 DVD [2 discs: 143 mins]

The revival of interest in Korngold’s operatic scores, following his death and a period where he was regularly categorised as a Hollywood film composer and little more, began with Die tote Stadt in a 1970s production of the work by New York City Opera and a stupendously cast studio recording of the score for RCA conducted by Erich Leinsdorf. This latter recording still maintains its place in the catalogues, and has been joined over the years by a number of other versions taken from live complete (or not-so-complete) performances in the opera house, and there have also been at least two video productions. It would therefore be fair to describe Die tote Stadt as an opera which, if not an immovable part of the central repertoire, is well-established on the fringes of that relatively small body of works. Testimony to its popular appeal may perhaps be cited by the fact that the second-act ‘Pierrot-Lied’ has featured no less than three times in the past decade in offerings from competitors in the Cardiff Singer of the World competition; and that two of these, including a luxuriantly expansive romantic interpretation (some way removed from what I suspect Korngold originally intended as a parody of a sentimental slow waltz) given by the eventual winner of the prize, came within a couple of days of each other this year.

It is hard to find an explanation, other than sheer critical snobbery, for the almost total neglect visited on Die tote Stadt during its first half-century of existence following the initial thrill of excitement at its first appearance. Admittedly the plot, with its somewhat incongruous conjunction of realistic verismo and heavily symbolic psychological imagery, can be confusing on first acquaintance. Paul, an ageing widower living in the decaying city of Bruges, thinks that he has rediscovered his lost love in the shape of a dancer whom he encounters and who sings his wife’s favourite melody. He then plunges into a nightmare series of visions including an encounter with the ghost of his wife (sung by the same singer), a procession of resurrected nuns, a night of lustful passion with the dancer, a religious ceremony which seems to invade his house from the streets, and finally his murder of the dancer using a braid of his wife’s hair which he has kept as a souvenir. Having thus exorcised his ghosts, he discovers that all these events were a dream when the very-much-alive dancer reappears to collect her belongings, and faces a future with a new sense of hope. There are elements here which are extremely difficult to realise on stage – the episode with the hair, which was always going to be grotesque, can teeter dangerously close to the brink of appearing ridiculous – but the music accurately reflects the fantastic nature of the events, and the brooding sense of the crumbling city of Bruges itself which almost becomes an additional character in the plot.

It is this atmosphere of doom-laden seediness, so evident in the music especially during the long cacophonous prelude to the second act, that is lacking in this production by Simon Stone. We are in a relentlessly modern city, with small neat apartments stocked with chic furniture and trendily decorated rooms which totally lack any sense of soul whatsoever, let alone the heavily neo-gothic architecture of Bruges itself. Thus when Paul leaves his apartment in search of his Marietta, he seemingly plunges from one apartment to another and from one street to another (the revolving set consists of a whole series of such rooms and cubicles) in a fashion that is even more deluded and dream-like than Korngold’s original conception. But the music, with its heavy imitation of church bells and doom-laden gongs, is totally at odds with the scenic design at this point; and when Marietta and her dancers arrive with supermarket trolleys and ripped jeans the sense of urban decay is quite different from the more baroque frivolities that Korngold has composed – one cannot imagine this collection of street performers assuming the roles of the characters in Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable, as the text and the music both indicate and demand. The result is not greater realism, but an increased sense of artificiality; and this proves fatal to the atmosphere of the occasional moments of stillness such as the ‘Pierrot-Lied’.

Another possible reason for the neglect of the score is more satisfactorily addressed in this performance – the sheer difficulty of the two leading roles. Like many composers of late-romantic German operas, Korngold seems to have assumed that major Wagnerian singers would be available for presentations as a matter of course. The part of Paul extends from a quiet lyrical delivery as he joins Marietta in her Lute Song, to a full-scale heroic rant as he apostrophises the ‘dead city’ of Bruges in a passage which rivals Siegfried for sheer clamour and then caps it with demands for heady top notes which mirror the part of the Emperor in Strauss’s contemporaneous Die Frau ohne Schatten. By comparison the singer of Marie/Marietta has slightly less of a musical range to cover, from a similarly small-scale lyrical tone to scenes of passion reminiscent of Isolde or Sieglinde; but she has an even more extreme contrast of character, from the vulgarity of the girl dancing in the streets to the sheer incomprehension when she meets a man who can keep his dead wife’s hair as a sort of trophy, and then by contrast appearing as an ethereal ghost or an everyday character making a social call. In the old Leinsdorf recording these two roles were taken – very well – by René Kollo and Carol Neblett. Here they are well matched, and indeed surpassed, by Jonas Kaufmann and Marlis Petersen. I must admit that I had some doubts as to whether the rather baritonal voice of Kaufmann would adjust to the cruelly high tessitura of Paul; but he manages the difficulties very well, and his acting performance strikes sparks off the equally impassioned Marlis Petersen even when the stage pictures that are being projected have a sense of modern ugliness which jars somewhat in the context of such richly romantic music. The production does less favours to Andrej Filończyk who delivers his ‘Pierrot-Lied’ smoothly but without much character and is somewhat overwhelmed by the richness of the orchestral sound.

And this brings me to the real contender in the video stakes for Die tote Stadt. In the 1980s the late Götz Friedrich gave a production of the opera at the Berlin State Opera which supplied most of the elements that this Bavarian Opera version lacks. In the first place, Friedrich’s Bruges was a tangible real presence, complete with functional canals on which boats could sail and a looming monastery in Act Two which looked capable of accommodating a whole regiment of nuns, living and dead. In case this sounds like a museum recreation of the opera, I should point out that he made some changes to the original plot. In a dispute over the key to Marietta’s room, Paul and his friend Frank quarrel; but in Friedrich’s interpretation Paul actually murders Frank by pushing him into the water of the canal. This not only serves to illustrate the extent of Paul’s infatuated delusion, but the re-emergence of Frank at the end of the opera provides an element of the return to normality that is so needed at this stage. At the final conclusion, too, Paul picks up a revolver from his desk drawer in a manner that implies that his cure is not perhaps so complete as the music – with the return of the Lute Song – might suggest, and could indeed still lead to tragic consequences. At points like these this new DVD sticks closer to the original plot. And Friedrich’s cast is not quite in the same league as that here. James King was an extremely intelligent singer, but in the opera house he could vary alarmingly from one performance to the next; in this video he is in his best voice, but his face was less naturally expressive than Kaufmann’s. On the other hand, Karan Armstrong was generally better as an actress than a singer – her voice was not always ideally steady – and there are moments especially in the more heavily-scored sections of Act Three where she is clearly having to work her voice very hard indeed. And Heinrich Hollreiser is a competent conductor, while Kirill Petrenko here is exceptionally good.

It is interesting too that there are places in this production where Stone’s interpretation is actually more literal than Friedrich’s. At the point where Paul’s visions begin to spiral out of control into the realms of nightmare, the moment is clearly signposted by a series of flashing strobe lights playing across the scene; Friedrich leaves the actual delineation between dream and reality much less apparent. Since the dead wife Marie has lost her hair (its fetishistic presence is clear throughout the action) her ghost, when it appears at the end of Act One, is bald; and multiple images of the bald Marie recur throughout the phantasmagoric dance sequences of Act Two. Pierrot, delivering his love-song, is clearly inebriated and the moment when the offstage chorus steals in is used to delineate a half-amorous kiss with Gaston. The whole sequence culminates in a (surprisingly coy) orgy which is interrupted by Paul, which fits rather uneasily with the quotations from Meyerbeer’s ballet music. The sense of real drama is welcome in a modern opera production, and forms a decided contrast with Stone’s production of Tristan at last year’s Aix-en-Provence Festival, which provoked howls of derision at its setting in (among other places) an underground train and culminated in the elopement of Isolde in the arms of Melot! But that very sense of reality jars horribly with Korngold’s score in places, and as I have observed the ‘dead city’ itself is notable for its absence.

I have to say that in the course of writing this review, I have listened to Die tote Stadt in full three times in a week, and the music has not staled in the slightest. As a musical performance of this opera, with superb solo singing and conducting, this new DVD is indeed by a considerable margin the best; and the recorded sound is also good, although RCA’s studio balances are better even across the span of half a century. But as a complete dramatic experience it is eclipsed by Friedrich’s more understanding, more innately sympathetic, staging which is hampered only by a couple of annoying cuts in the score (although less grievous than those in Segerstam’s Naxos set) and – more seriously – by the fact that the DVD is now almost impossible to obtain. A solitary second-hand copy on Amazon, at the time of writing, came in as even more expensive than this new Bavarian State Opera set despite the apparent extravagance of the latter in spreading the opera over two discs. Alternative DVD versions fall down in the casting, with the central role of Paul inadequately taken in the productions; neither Klaus Florian Vogt or Stefan Vinke can match Kaufmann dramatically or vocally. So, if you can run to earth a copy of the Arthaus DVD from 1983, do so; otherwise this new BSO version will be found more than satisfactory.

Paul Corfield Godfrey

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