The Dead City Lives On


Usually I go to performances on their official opening nights, as they are normally the first time the press is admitted, and often the only performance for which the press office has an allocation of tickets. But sometimes that's not possible because of a clash, and, if you ask nicely, the press officer will find you seats sometime later. I've discovered that, especially in the case of operas, with their comparatively short runs, this often means that you are witness to a better performance than your colleagues seem to have had on the press night.


I  attended the second performance of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's "Die tote Stadt" at the Royal Opera House, which seems to have been my good fortune, as the London critics' reviews seem to have been unanimously lukewarm. They were, however, making a little bit of history just by being at Covent Garden that evening, as it was, oddly, the first staged British production of a piece that - so fierce was the competition to stage the prodigy Korngold's opera - had a double world première at Hamburg and Cologne in 1920. (The première couldn't be staged in Vienna, where he lived, because his father, Julius Korngold, was the city's chief music critic, and also best friend of Franz Schalk, the co-director of the Vienna State Opera. Charges of nepotism were thus avoided. But also, though it wasn't known until 1975, the "Paul Schott" credited with the libretto was in reality the 23-year-old composer and his dad.)

Willy Decker's production (with his regular designer, Wolfgang Gussman) has actually been round the houses, originating in Salzburg and going to Vienna, Amsterdam, Barcelona and San Francisco.

Some of the London critics have complained that the piece itself is flawed. Taken from a novella by Georges Rodenbach, Bruges-la-Morte, the opera is (at least in the Decker version) mostly the dream of a widower, Paul, about his dead wife, Marie. He is "in denial" to the extent of making his room a shrine to her, with portraits of her everywhere and a vitrine in which he keeps her golden hair - not a lock of her hair, but - apparently - all of it. Paul (American tenor Stephen Gould) meets her double, Marietta (German soprano Nadja Michael), and becomes obsessed with the idea that his wife is still alive. At the end, following a good deal of pain (which, in this production, is in an extended dream sequence), Paul banishes his ghost. The most plausible interpretation of the piece is that Korngold is here laying the ghosts of World War I, and that the opera is optimistic. With an harlequinade and a crowded religious procession, there's an awful lot of slush going on in an opera that is fundamentally a two-hander; and you can see why the standard criticism of the piece is "too much Korn, not enough gold." But Decker's stagecraft is startling and I loved every moment of it.

Most of the critics have disliked the performances of the two principal singers. Some of the problems must have been first-night-itis. Though Ms Michael was formerly a mezzo, and had a few off-intonation moments (most noticeable in their duets), her voice has a lovely warm mezzo timbre, even when she's singing well above the stave. She's both lithe and muscular, and a good mover - sometimes, in this role, purposely graceless, I think, in an Expressionist sort of way. Mind you, she has to carry off Act 2 in only a slip and a bald-wig. Strangely, I found her diction poor, whereas I was able to follow much of Gould's German. He's not a great actor (I saw his Bayreuth Siegfried in 2006), but his voice is big and precise, and he coped brilliantly with the hideous, exhausting difficulties of Paul's tessitura - the notes whoosh up over the stave and stay there for most of the three acts, when he hardly leaves the stage. It's the most unrelaxing sing imaginable.

But Gould's voice rang out over the huge orchestra, never sounding harsh, and only once or twice forced beyond a beautiful spinto. Conductor Ingo Metzmacher deserves a good deal of credit for keeping the balance so delicately, while the orchestra ravished us with Korngold's lush score, with long, Wagnerian dissonances that take forever to resolve, and often a Straussian, teasing celesta tinkle several bars before you actually get to hear the cadence. For those (like me) who love to wallow in late Romantic sound-baths, this is a wonderful score - and never mind the nonsensical libretto. Okay, maybe it's film-music, like so much of Korngold's other output. Who says film-music can't be serious?

Though most of the audience is, perforce, seeing Die tote Stadt for the first time, I'd seen it once before, in Zurich in 2003, in Sven-Eric Bechtolf's production with dreamlike sets by Rolf Glittenberg that weren't entirely distant from Gussman's. The Zurich conductor was Franz Welser-Möst - but all I remember was liking the gooey music a good deal. What I do recall were the singers - a young Emily Magee as Marietta, Norbert Schnittberg as Paul. And just as the London production's only perfect bit of casting is - luxuriously - Gerald Finley in the secondary role of Frank/Fritz, in Zurich the part was sung by Olaf Bär.

Maybe we ought to start a Second Night Club. In any event, I feel that the Royal Opera has proved the case for Korngold. Unlike some of my colleagues, I think enthusiastic audiences (such as the one that included me) will help Die tote Stadt to join the repertory; and I hope that soon we might even get to see (as well as hear) some of a great composer's other operas.

February 2, 2009 8:30 AM | | Comments (2)


Carlos, I caught up late with the Lebrecht review and your comment. But I certainly agree with your example. And as I said, I've actually seen another production of Die Tote Stadt, and the staging of the current Royal Opera production is better than that of the Zurich production - though the Zurich casting was a bit smarter. And I wholeheartedly endorse your conclusion. Anyway, there's much pleasure to be had in spotting the borrowings and influences in the score, don't you think?

Interesting that Norman Lebrecht also recently reviewed Die tode Stadt . He didn't like it. My comment on his blog, repeated here:

"Whenever a critic complains about the libretto or plot of an opera, there is only one possible response:

Il Trovatore!

"Die tode stadt is not the greatest opera ever written, but it is dramatic and has music that speaks to anyone who takes the time to listen to it."

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This page contains a single entry by Plain English published on February 2, 2009 8:30 AM.

The "Oh dear" Drama was the previous entry in this blog.

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