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Stephen Gould as Paul [Photo by Bill Cooper courtesy of The Royal Opera House]
08 Feb 2009

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Die tote Stadt is Korngold’s masterpiece in the old sense of the word, when a craftsman would produce a dazzling work to show the world what he could do. This is Korngold’s manifesto, so to speak.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold : Die tote Stadt

Stephen Gould (Paul), Nadja Michael (Marie/Marietta), Gerald Finlay (Frank/Fritz), Kathleen Wilkinson (Brigitta), Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Ingo Metzmacher (conductor), Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Willy Decker (director), Wolfgang Gussman (designs).

Above: Stephen Gould as Paul

All photos by Bill Cooper courtesy of The Royal Opera House.


It displays his virtues beautifully. But his vices, too, are part of the mix. In Die tote Stadt we hear both the promise of his youth and echoes of what was to come.

The virtues are clear –this is delightful music full of action and romance. Korngold weaves genres together with ease and freedom. The Meyerbeer segment is a joy. He connects a tradition of popular opera while alluding to the most recent incarnation of the Pierrot story – Pierrot Lunaire, Schoenberg’s greatest hit, a sensation before the First World War. He references Wagner, the Strausses (Richard and both Johanns) and plenty of Puccini, particularly Madama Butterfly, another tale of obsessive love and death. Korngold is no ignoramus. He knows his music history and knows his audiences will relish the allusions. The good moments in this opera are superb, torrents of chromatic colour, sonorities so luscious one could almost drown in their gorgeousness.

Tote_Stadt_ROH_03.pngNadja Michael as Marietta

“O Tanz, O Rausch!” sings Marietta, who loses herself in the ecstasy of dance. This mindless, instinctive surrender to sensuality animates the opera. Marietta symbolizes life and vigour. Only she dares confront the overpowering portrait of the dead Marie. Marie may have her moment of vengeance but ultimately, it’s Marietta who lives on. When Frank, Paul’s alter ego suggest they leave Bruges, Paul sings a reprise of “Marietta’s Lied” it becomes a song of triumph, not regret.

The message in Die tote Stadt could not be clearer. Paul must move on if he is to survive. The past can be treasured but cannot take priority over the future. Metzmacher perceptively said that the opera was “like an old photograph. You like to keep it and look at it. But reality is different”. The original novel, Bruges la Morte, by Georges Rodenbach was illustrated with photographs of the city, preserved forever in one moment in the 19th century.

This performance, at the Royal Opera House, under the baton of Ingo Metzmacher, was perhaps as truer to the spirit of the original than many others, for Metzmacher sees it as fresh, daring and modern. This is important because Korngold has, in the last ninety years, acquired a reputation for backward-looking sentimentality. Audiences do like what they assume to be tradition. In 1920, Die tote Stadt was cutting edge. Wozzeck and Jonny Spielt auf were years away. There are shockingly daring harmonies and clashes of key, especially in the Prelude to Act 3. Metzmacher’s clear, incisive style doesn’t cloak the modernity in a slush of sugar, but makes us realize just how aware and innovative Korngold could be.

But Korngold, like Richard Strauss in Elektra, seems to pull back from the edge. However much his admirers may champion his later work, it is Die tote Stadt that is his masterpiece. There isn’t place in this review for an assessment of Korngold’s career as a whole, but the very fact that he chose this ambivalent narrative is revealing. The libretto was written jointly by Korngold and his father, the domineering Julius Korngold, but this was concealed until 1975. How far did Julius’ arch conservative hand hold sway over what he son did, consciously or otherwise ? Since the hero’s dead wife holds vampire-like control of his life, the relevance may not be purely accidental.

The original novel is far more sinister and disturbing. Korngold instead avoids facing the dilemmas by turning murder and madness into a dream, from which his protagonist can walk away without reflection. Yet reflection occurs again and again in the music and textual images. Willy Decker’s staging makes much of mirrors, portraits, of transparent glass surface that throw light back on the action. The “parallel reality” scenes in Act 1 are excellent as theatre, expressing the ambiguous, multi-layered duality that pervades the music and plot. The procession scene is designed to match the Meyerbeer scene – white costumes, masks, stylized ensembles. This is perceptive for it expresses visually the fundamental contrast in the opera between real life and artifice, between actors and characters.

Tote_Stadt_ROH_02.png(From Left To Right) Jurgita Adamonytė as Lucienne, Ji-Min Park as Graf Albert, Gerald Finley as Fritz, Steven Ebel as Victorin, Simona Mihai as Juliette & (Back Row) Adrien Mastrosimone as Gaston

First Night nerves may have accounted for lapses in the singing, though both Paul (Stephen Gould) and Marie/Marietta (Nadja Michael) are demanding roles that keep the singers on stage nearly the whole evening. The range in Marie/Marietta is fearsomely wide, so if Michael was more comfortable in the lower register, it was understandable. Gerald Finlay was luxury casting even though he only appears intermittently. As always, the Royal Opera Chorus was superb.

This Die tote Stadt made a convincing case for Korngold’s reputation. Glorious as it is, though, there are elements in it which make us realize in retrospect why the composer would later excel in music for film. Early movies were a kind of “extreme opera”, where music intensified dramatic action, where emotions were whipped up even if the plots were thin.

Korngold was writing for film long before the Anschluss, which caught him already in Hollywood. The colourful, episodic nature of Die tote Stadt, with its evocation of feeling, despite the weakness in the text, is a foretaste of where Korngold was to find himself. Only a few years previously, all movies were silent. Film music was the cutting edge of modernity, and Korngold was in the vanguard, creating a whole new genre.

Anne Ozorio

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