19 Apr 2009
Die tote Stadt: The Dead City Livens Up Palermo
Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s music drama Die tote Stadt has had a rather erratic life in major opera houses.
A fixation on death at San Francisco Opera. A 337 year-old woman gave it all up just now after only six years since she last gave it all up on the War Memorial stage.
Penny Woolcock's 2010 production of Bizet's The Pearl Fishers returned to English National Opera (ENO) for its second revival on 19 October 2018. Designed by Dick Bird (sets) and Kevin Pollard (costumes) the production remains as spectacular as ever, and ENO fielded a promising young cast with Claudia Boyle as Leila, Robert McPherson as Nadir and Jacques Imbrailo as Zurga, plus James Creswell as Nourabad, conducted by Roland Böer.
Francesco Cavalli’s La Calisto was the composer’s ﬁfteenth opera, and the ninth to a libretto by Giovanni Faustini (1615-1651). First performed at the Teatro Sant’Apollinaire in Venice on 28th November 1651, the opera by might have been sub-titled ‘Gods Behaving Badly’, so debauched are the deities’ dalliances and deviations, so egotistical their deceptions.
At the end of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Theseus delivers a speech which returns to the play’s central themes: illusion, art and the creative imagination. The sceptical king dismisses ‘The poet’s vision - his ‘eye, in a fine frenzy rolling’ - which ‘gives to airy nothing/ A local habitation and a name’; such art, and theatre, is a psychological deception brought about by an excessive, uncontrolled imagination.
Following the success of previous ‘mini-festivals’ at St John’s Smith Square devoted to Schubert and Schumann, last weekend pianist Anna Tilbrook curated a three-day exploration of the work of Ralph Vaughan Williams and his contemporaries. The music performed in these six concerts was chosen to reflect the changing contexts in which it was composed and to reveal the vast changes in society, politics and culture which occurred during Vaughan Williams’ long life-time (1872-1958) and which shaped his life and creative output.
Trying to work around Manon Lescaut’s episodic structure, this new production presents the plot as the dying protagonist’s feverish hallucinations. The result is a frosty retelling of what is arguably Puccini’s most hot-blooded opera. Musically, the performance also left much to be desired.
It is Herodotus who tells us that when Xerxes was marching through Asia to invade Greece, he passed through the town of Kallatebos and saw by the roadside a magnificent plane-tree which, struck by its great beauty, he adorned with golden ornaments, and ordered that a man should remain beside the tree as its eternal guardian.
Poor Puccini. He is far too often treated as a ‘box-office hit’ by our ‘major’ opera houses, at least in Anglophone countries. For so consummate a musical dramatist, that is something beyond a pity. Here in London, one is far better advised to go to Holland Park for interesting, intelligent productions, although ENO’s offerings have often had something to be said for them.
With only four singers and a short-story-like plot Don Pasquale is an ideal chamber opera. That chamber just now was the 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House where this not always charming opera buffa is an infrequent visitor (post WWII twice in the 1980’s after twice in the 40’s).
“Yang sementara tak akan menahan bintang hilang di bimasakti; Yang bergetar akan terhapus.” (“The transient cannot hold on to stars lost in the Milky Way; that which quivers will be erased.”) As soprano Tony Arnold sang these words of Tony Prabowo’s chamber opera Pastoral, with astonishingly crisp Indonesian diction, the first night of the second annual Momenta Festival approached its end.
Some operas seemed designed and destined to raise questions and debates - sometimes unanswerable and irresolvable, and often contentious. Termed a dramma giocoso, Mozart’s Don Giovanni has, historically, trodden a movable line between seria and buffa.
Péter Eötvös’ The Sirens Cycle received its world premiere at the Wigmore Hall, London, on Saturday night with Piia Komsi and the Calder Quartet. An exceptionally interesting new work, which even on first hearing intrigues: imagine studying the score! For The Sirens Cycle is elegantly structured, so intricate and so complex that it will no doubt reveal even greater riches the more familiar it becomes. It works so well because it combines the breadth of vision of an opera, yet is as concise as a chamber miniature. It's exquisite, and could take its place as one of Eötvös's finest works.
New from Oehms Classics, Walter Braunfels Orchestral Songs Vol 1. Luxury singers - Valentina Farcas, Klaus Florian Vogt and Michael Volle, with the Staatskapelle Weimar, conducted by Hansjörg Albrecht.
Manitoba Underground Opera took audiences on a journey — literally and figuratively — as it presented its latest installment of repertory opera between August 19–26.
On a recent weekend Lyric Opera of Chicago gave its annual concert at Millennium Park during which the coming season and its performers are variously showcased. Several of the performers, who were featured at this “Stars of Lyric Opera” event, are scheduled to make their debuts in Lyric Opera’s new production of Wagner’s Das Rheingold beginning on 1 October.
Desire and deception; Amor and artifice. In Jan Philipp Gloger’s new production of Così van tutte at the Royal Opera House, the artifice is of the theatrical, rather than the human, kind. And, an opera whose charm surely lies in its characters’ amiable artfulness seems more concerned to underline the depressing reality of our own deluded faith in human fidelity and integrity.
On September 22, 2016, Los Angeles Opera presented Darko Tresnjak’s production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Macbeth. Verdi and Francesco Maria Piave based their opera on Shakespeare’s play of the same name.
On September 18th, at a casual Sunday matinee, Pacific Opera Project presented a surprising choice for a small company. It was Igor Stravinsky’s 1951 three act opera, The Rake’s Progress. It’s a piece made for today's supertitles with its exquisitely worded libretto by W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman.
We are nearing the end of Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 sojourn through 1766, a year that the company’s artistic director Ian Page admits was ‘on face value a relatively fallow year’. I’m not so sure: Jommelli’s Il Vogoleso, performed at the Cadogan Hall in April, was a gem. But, then, I did find the repertoire that Classical Opera offered at the Wigmore Hall in January, ‘worthy rather than truly engaging’ (review). And, this programme of Haydn and his Czech contemporary Josef Mysliveček was stylishly executed but did not absolutely convince.
Globalization finds its way ever more to San Francisco Opera where Italian composer Marco Tutino’s La Ciociara saw the light of day in 2015 and now, 2016, Chinese composer Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber has been created.
Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s music drama Die tote Stadt has had a rather erratic life in major opera houses.
The author was an “enfant prodige” when at the age of 23 , and with already two successful operas on his back, Die tote Stadt ( “The Dead City”) had the privilege of simultaneous premières in Hamburg and Cologne. It had been turned down by Vienna mainly because of a rift between Gustav Mahler (then, at the helm of the Staatsoper) and Korngold’s father, Julius, a well known (and very strong minded) music reviewer as well as co-author (with his son) of the terse libretto. The success was enormous. Also in Vienna, where it was staged a few months later.
Even before the first staging, Giacomo Puccini was so shocked by a piano performance by “young Erich Wolfgang” that, according to hearsay in many of his biographies, stopped composing the final part of Turandot. In the 1920s, Die tote Stadt was applauded in all main European opera houses. At the advent of Nazism, Korngold emigrated to the U.S. where he spent most of his life between New York and Los Angeles. He became a well known author of film music, winning no less than two Oscar Prizes.
After a long period of silence, Die tote Stadt found a new lease on life in the mid-1970s, with successful and almost parallel, albeit very different productions, in New York (at the City Opera) and in Munich. I loved the City Opera production when I was living in Washington; the music drama was being toured in the USA. It appeared quite frequently until the mid-1980s. Then a new phase of relative oblivion; it re-emerged in the late 1990 at the Spoleto Festival and in 2004 at the Salzburg Festival. The Salzburg production, staged by Willy Decker, had standing ovation; since then, it is in the repertory of the Vienna Staatsoper and has been seen in Barcelona, Madrid and several other major theaters; last February was in London at the RHO. In Italy, Die tote Stadt had his premère in Catania in 1996, was in Spoleto in 1998 and is now in Venice and Palermo in a new sparkling production — quite different from Decker’s.
The plot is base on a decadent late 19th century novel by the symbolistic writer and poet Georges Rodendach — also the basis, as a play, for a major box-office hit It revolves around the obsessions of young widower, Paul; madly in love for his past wife Marie. He thinks that she revives in a sexy dancer, Mariette, visiting Bruges (“the dead city”) to perform in the local opera house. To come to grip with his obsessive day-dreams, Paul has to kill Mariette and leave Bruges forever. The score includes a broad cross-section of all what was in vogue in Central Europe in the years around the First World War. It has reminisces from Wagner and Strauss but especially the opulence of Schreker. The listener can feel that Zemlisky was Korngold’s teacher, not only Schönberg. The complex vocal and orchestral score leaves also room to two set pieces — Mariette’s Lute Song and Pierrot’s Dance Song — easy to listen and frequently requested in German radio programs.A scene from Die tote Stadt [Photo by Michele Crosera]
The Palermo and Venice joint productions — two of the rare financially sound Italian opera houses — features a fascinating staging by Pier Luigi Pizzi. With a skillful use of mirrors and lighting, we are enthralled in a deadly atmosphere: Paul’s house opens on a decaying city in a dark swamp of stagnant water. The details are carefully described in James Sohre’s review of the Venice production published in Opera Today on 8 March. In Palermo, though, there is a different cast. The conductor Will Humburg digs into the score to show its modern approach as well the “virtuoso” efforts requested to some orchestra soloist. Very taxing the role of the protagonist, Paul, always on stage with a heldentenor pitch; John Trelaven is up to the required standard; in my opinion, a better fit than Stefan Vinke in Venice . Nicole Beller Carbone is an erotic Mariette, both vocally and dramatically. Good all the others.
The Palermo audience is gradually getting adjusted to more innovative opera seasons than those of the past and applauded warmly the April 16th opening night of Die tote Stadt in their beloved Teatro Massimo.