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A scene from Die tote Stadt, Palermo [Photo by Michele Crosera]
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.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Die tote Stadt

Paul: John Treleaven; Marietta / Marie: Nicola Beller Carbone; Frank: Christopher Robertson; Brigitte: Tiziana Tramonti; Juliette: Mina Yamazaki; Lucienne: Julia Oesch; Fritz: Franco Pomponi; Counte Albert: Federico Lepre. Orchestra, Coro e Coro di voci bianche del Teatro Massimo. Will Humburg, Pierluigi Pizzi, director.

Above: A scene from Die tote Stadt, Palermo [Photo by Michele Crosera]


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.

_DSC5390.gifA 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.

Giuseppe Pennisi

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