Korngold's Dead City
first came across the music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold in 1969, when I saw The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) for which he wrote an Oscar-winning score. I was sufficiently intrigued to do some research into him, and discovered that he had been an infant prodigy whose compositions attracted the praise of luminaries such as Mahler; and that he had composed several operas.
The most popular of these was Die Tote Stadt, premiered in 1920 when Korngold was 23, and performed frequently in Europe during the 1920s: however it was not performed in Britain until a concert performance in 1996, and now the first staged performance at Covent Garden this month.
The opera is based on Bruges la Morte, a fairly unreadable Belgian novel by Georges Rodenbach, published in 1895. The opera makes a number of changes to the plot, principally making most of the action a dream. One could reasonably describe the plot as fairly overheated. Paul cannot come to terms with the recent death of his young wife, Marie: he is surrounded by mementos of her in his room and the decaying city of Bruges outside it. He meets a woman with a remarkable resemblance to Marie: Marietta, a performer with a somewhat louche troupe of actors. She visits his rooms, sings for him, and accidentally sees the portrait of Marie. She leaves, hinting at a further relationship: an apparition of Marie calls to him - 'Go out into life - another calls you - see and understand'.
In Act 2, Paul now has become Marietta's lover. He watches as the actors relax and rehearse in the open air. He approaches Marietta: she dismisses the others and demands they go together - 'In her room, I want you to be mine'.
In Act 3, in his rooms with Marietta, Paul has a vision of a religious procession. Marietta mocks his beliefs and a row develops: they fight and he strangles her with a lock of Marie's hair. The dream dissolves: Paul is back in his room just after Marietta had left the first time. She returns to collect the umbrella she left behind: she hints at a relationship but Paul ignores her. Freed from the ghost of his dead wife, he resolves to leave Bruges.
The libretto, written under the pseudonym 'Paul Schott' by Korngold himself and his father (a foremost music critic), is surprisingly literate, and together with the powerful and highly coloured music adds depth to what could have seemed a silly story.
The Covent Garden presentation is of a production originally by the Vienna State Opera, directed by Willy Decker with Paul sung in yesterday's performance by Torsten Karl and Marie/Marietta by Nadja Michael, and conducted by Ingo Metzmacher. The production adds various psychological factors to the original libretto's instructions, some of which work and a few of which seem rather odd: Paul's housekeeper, who at the beginning of Act 2 has left him to become a nun, is here seen on a cross being carried by a processions: and for some reason Marietta turns out to be bald - which, coupled with her being in her shift for most of Act 3 and an increasingly crouched movement style, makes her seem mentally disturbed rather than a cocquette who is in charge of any sexual situation.
More effective is the appearance of another version of Paul's room behind the real one when Marie speaks to him: we see another version of him, together with Marie. However the whole production makes it quite clear that Acts 2 and 3 are a dream, whereas the original intention seems to have been to make this ambiguous until the end.
The performances were good throughout, though Karl did sound a trifle strained - with some excuse, since Paul is one of the most taxing tenor parts in the entire opera repertoire. The music still carries considerable impact, and the whole production has been well worth reviving: this opera certainly deserves to be better known.
A recording of one of this series of performances will be broadcast by BBC Radio 3 on May 23rd and will be available in the BBC iPlayer for 7 days thereafter.
Posted: Wed - February 18, 2009 at 10:12 AM by Roger Wilmut
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Published On: Mar 11, 2016 05:00 PM