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Commentary

Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1864)
03 Oct 2008

Korngold opera the “Hair” of its day

Back in the 19th century it was not smoke, but hair that got in one’s eyes.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Die tote Stadt

Above: Beata Beatrix by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1864)

 

The obsession with it reached an early high point in Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s painting of wife Elizabeth Siddal as Beata Beatrix and came to a late conclusion in Erich Korngold’s 1920 opera Die tote Stadt, which opened a 6-performance run at the San Francisco Opera on September 23. Paul, central figure of the story, is a man of only 30 who has made of his home an altar of worship to his dead wife Marie, and his continuing adoration of her focuses upon a heavy lock of her hair that he keeps at his side.

In the current age of sanitized death many who attended the superb SFO production first seen in Salzburg in 2004 found the story morbid and were cheered that the opera ended with Paul’s realization that he must put an end to this life-in-death and return to the real world. That ending, however, is the work of Korngold and it prompts one to go back to the 19th century — to the days of divine decadence and sultry symbolism — and to retrace significant steps — that led to this sumptuous score.

For a look-alike of the deceased Marie, designer Wolfgang Gussmann turned to John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Miss Elsie Palmer, an 1890 oil-on-canvas now in the Colorado Springs Art Center. A huge reproduction of the painting was on the SFO stage and smaller versions of it were projected on the walls of Paul’s salon from time to time. To be sure, Palmer was a beautiful woman and since she was only 17 at the time of the painting Gussmann’s choice of it suggests early and unjust death. But would not Rossetti’s rendering of his wife as Dante’s guide into ethereal realms have been even more fitting — or are we embarrassed by the excesses of the decadent imagination of his age? For it was Rossetti who entered fully into the esthetic of this age.

Siddal, although painted by many, is remembered almost solely through Rossetti’s pre-Raphaelite masterpiece, and the role played by Beatrix’ ample red hair points directly toward Die tote Stadt. When Siddal died a mere two years after their marriage the distraught Rossetti tucked into her hair a book of his unpublished verse and had it buried with her. Alas, thereupon his creative well ran dry. What to do but have Siddal exhumed to retrieve his poetry? Approval was given by the courts, and the exhumation — Rossetti was not present — was carried out at night to avoid attracting attention.

Korngold’s Paul would have understood — and have been far more captivated by the muted pain of Beatrix than by the innocent plainness of Elsie Palmer. The heavy, slightly stifling hothouse atmosphere aura of Rossetti would also have appealed to that great father of decadence Joris-Karl Huysmans, who wrote the basic guide to this life style in his 1884 À rebours (or Against the Grain).

This is the “poisonous” but unnamed book that so fascinated Dorian Gray and that Oscar Wilde was later forced to name at his trial. Huysmans knew the art of his day and paid incensed tribute — above all — to the achievement of Gustave Moreau, whom he praised for his several opulent paintings of Salome. “Des Esseintes saw at last the Salome, weird and superhuman, he had dreamed of,” Huysman writes of his esthete hero. “No longer was she merely the dancing girl who extorts a cry of lust and concupiscence from an old man by the lascivious contortions of her body; who breaks the will, masters the mind of a King by the spectacle of her quivering bosoms, heaving belly and tossing thighs; she was now revealed in a sense as the symbolic incarnation of world-old ice, the goddess of immortal Hysteria, the Curse of Beauty supreme above all other beauties by the cataleptic spasm that stirs the flesh and steels her muscles.” Here one encounters full force the irresistible sensuous appeal of the femme fatale, of whom Korngold’s Marie is a late descendent.

Korngold found the story of Hugues Viane — the composer rechristened him Paul — in George Rodenbach’s brief 1892 novel Bruges-la-Morte, a near-forgotten work found worthy of a new translation by Mike Mitchell, published with a perceptive introduction by Alan Hollinghurst by Dedalus Press in 2004.

Bruges in its moribund medieval majesty served Rodenbach not only as background, but as a character in the novel as well, for in the stasis of its beauty it reflected the continuing presence of Marie — dead five years at the time — in Paul’s life. Indeed, Hollinghurst describes the book as a study of passion whose other principal aim is the evocation of a town, not merely as a backdrop, but as an essential character, associated with states of mind, counseling, dissuading, inducing the hero to act.

In its proximity to the worlds of Wagner, Baudelaire and Freud, Bruges-la-Morte is a significant work and it seems a shame that Korngold felt called upon to return Paul to an active life. Why deny him the Liebestod that was so rightfully his? And is he really going to be happy back in the 9-to-5 world?

Was Korngold, who later found greater fame in swashbuckling scores for films starring Errol Flynn, pre-programmed to favor the happy end then traditional in Hollywood? Be that as it may, the composer’s “mélange of Straussian modernism and Viennese schmaltz,” as one critic has called it, stands as a major achievement of David Gockley’s beginnings as the new general director of the San Francisco Opera.

Die tote Stadt is a good — not a great opera — and fully deserving of the affection lavished on it in this staging.

Wes Blomster

Click here for a review of San Francisco Opera’s production of Die tote Stadt.

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