Die tote Stadt
Erich Korngold: Die tote Stadt, Dresden, 2 February 2018, directed by David Bösch, conducted by Dmitri Jurowski, reviewed by TONY COOPER
Written during the First World War by the teenage Korngold, already an internationally-successful composer, Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) is based on the 1892 novel Bruges-la-Morte, by the Belgian writer Georges Rodenbach. It is set to a libretto by Paul Schott, a collective pseudonym for the composer and his father, Julius Korngold. By the time of its première, Korngold was just 23 years old. Mahler considered Korngold a ‘musical genius’ and recommended that he study with the celebrated Viennese-born composer, Alexander von Zemlinsky. Richard Strauss spoke highly of him too.
Die tote Stadt was influenced by Symbolism, an artistic and literary movement originating in the late 19th century in Belgium and France which used images and suggestions to express mystical ideas, emotions and states of mind. Overcoming the loss of a loved one (the theme of Die tote Stadt) resonated with audiences of the 1920s who had endured the trauma and grief of the First World War. It was one of the biggest hits of the 1920s. Within two years of its première, Die tote Stadt had received a host of performances at The Met. The Berlin première took place in 1924 with the two central characters, Paul and Marie/Marietta, performed by Richard Tauber and Lotte Lehmann. The conductor was George Szell.
The Nazis banned it because of Korngold’s Jewish ancestry and following the Second World War, it fell into obscurity. Key post-war revivals were at the Vienna Volksoper (1967) and New York City Opera (1975). Although often performed in Germany, this is the first time that it has been staged at the Semperoper. Sadly, it is rarely seen in the UK. The UK première only took place in January 1996, by way of a concert performance by the Kensington Symphony Orchestra conducted by Russell Keable at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, featuring Ian Caley and Christine Teare. The first UK staged performance was at the Royal Opera House in January 2009.
The story centres on Paul, a widowed artist who wanders about his shabby and untidy studio/living space which he has turned into a shrine, The Temple of Memories, devoted to his late wife, Marie. Trapped in tearful memories, Paul is cared for by his housekeeper Brigitta and is regularly visited by his friend, Frank. Home comforts include an easy-chair, a Persian carpet and a standard-lamp.
Paul constantly gazes at a portrait and photographs of Marie, which are crafted here by video technology. Her Christian name is graphitised in large capital letters across one of the studio walls. Paul only adds to his suffering by keeping a lock of Marie’s golden hair in a casket by his bedside. For in his mind, Marie is still alive and in conversation with Frank he confides that a woman he has met in Bruges, Marietta, bares a striking resemblance to her. In due course, he invites her to his studio and addresses her as Marie but she corrects him immediately. Marietta, an attractive dancer from Lille and a member of a touring Pierrot troupe, is not the pure and chaste girl that he so desires. She is flirtatious to the extreme.
Ever suspicious, Paul suspects that Marietta is having an affair with Frank. Dismayed by his possessive behaviour, Marietta declares that she is free to do what she likes. Nonetheless, she trys to interest him in her charms in the ravishing aria Glück das mir verblieb’ (‘Joy that near to me remained’) often referred to as the ‘Lute Song’, which tells of the joy but evanescence of love.
Torn between his loyalty to Marie and his infatuation for Marietta, Paul collapses in his chair and hallucinates. He sees Marie’s ghost step out of her portrait urging him not to forget her. But then the vision changes and she tells Paul to move on with his life. Marietta, in due course, moves in with Paul but eventually tires of his obsession with Marie and taunts him by dancing seductively while stroking a lock of his dead wife’s hair. In a rage, Paul grabs the lock of hair and strangles her but only after making love to her. Holding her dead body, he exclaims: ‘Now she’s exactly like Marie.’ Awaking from his dream he is astonished that Marietta’s body is nowhere to be found. Frank, who is about to leave Bruges, asks Paul to accompany him. ‘I shall try,’ he enigmatically replies. The opera ends with a reprise of ‘Glück, das mir verblieb’ sung by Paul before his imminent departure from The Temple of Memories.
In the demanding role of Paul, the Hamburg-born tenor Burkhard Fritz delivered an authoritative reading of the stricken widower, while the German soprano, Manuela Uhl, excelled as Marie/Marietta. Her youthful mannerisms were erotically charged, while her voice perfectly suited Korngold’s ravishing score. In Marietta’s Lied, Ms Uhl’s voice was luminous, especially in the upper register.
There was an excellent performance, too, from Sebastian Wartig in the dual role of Frank/Fritz the Pierrot. His warm baritone voice was heard to good effect in the romantic ballad ‘Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen’. American mezzo-soprano, Tichina Vaughn, as Brigitta, delivered a fine performance.
In the pit, German-born conductor Dmitri Jurowski, grandson of composer Vladimir Michailovich Jurowski, oversaw the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden, supported by the Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden and the Kinderchor der Sächsischen Staatsoper Dresden. These combined forces captured the essence of Korngold’s romantic and cinematic score, with its hints of Richard Strauss.
German-born theatre director, David Bösch, who made his Royal Opera House début directing Verdi’s Il trovatore, highlighted the imaginary elements of the opera. Patrick Bannwart’s video sequences, executed in a fragmented black and white format, featured the re-enactment of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection and the Procession of the Holy Blood which date back to the early 14th century and are held every year in Bruges on Ascension Day. The creative team was completed by Falko Herold who produced a stunning wardrobe for the Pierrot troupe, à la Commedia dell’Arte. Fabio Antoci’s lighting accentuated this opera’s darkness.
Tony Cooper is QR’s opera critic