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.
Classical Opera’s MOZART 250 project has reached the year 1767. Two years ago, the company embarked upon an epic, 27-year exploration of the music written by Mozart and his contemporaries exactly 250 years previously. The series will incorporate 250th anniversary performances of all Mozart’s important compositions and artistic director Ian Page tells us that as 1767 ‘was the year in which Mozart started to write more substantial works - opera, oratorio, concertos this will be the first year of MOZART 250 in which Mozart’s own music dominates the programme’.
‘[T]hey moderated or increased their voices, loud or soft, heavy or light according to the demands of the piece they were singing; now slowing, breaking of sometimes with a gentle sigh, now singing long passages legato or detached, now groups, now leaps, now with long trills, now with short, or again, with sweet running passages sung softly, to which one sometimes heard an echo answer unexpectedly. They accompanied the music and the sentiment with appropriate facial expressions, glances and gestures, with no awkward movements of the mouth or hands or body which might not express the feelings of the song. They made the words clear in such a way that one could hear even the last syllable of every word, which was never interrupted or suppressed by passages or other embellishments.’
An exceptional Wagner Der fliegende Holländer, so challenging that, at first, it seems shocking. But Kasper Holten's new production, currently at the Finnish National Opera, is also exceptionally intelligent.
A welcome addition to Lyric Opera of Chicago’s roster was its recent production of Jules Massenet’s Don Quichotte.
800 years ago, every book was a precious treasure - ‘written on skin’. In George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s 2012 opera, Written on Skin, modern-day archivists search for one such artefact: a legendary 12th-century illustrated vanity project, commissioned by an unnamed Protector to record and celebrate his power.
It was like a “Date Night” at Staatsoper unter den Linden with its return of Eike Gramss’ 2012 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. While I entered the Schiller Theater, the many young couples venturing to the opera together, and emerging afterwards all lovey-dovey and moved by Puccini’s melodramatic romance, encouraged me to think more positively about the future of opera.
For the Late Night concert after the Saturday series, fifteen Berliners backed up Barbara Hannigan in yet another adventurous collaboration on a modern rarity with Simon Rattle. I was completely unfamiliar with the French composer, but the performance tonight made me fall in love with Gérard Grisey’s sensually disintegrating soundscape Quatre chants pour franchir le seuil, or “Fours Songs to cross the Threshold”.
One of the things I love about the Philharmonie in Berlin, is the normalcy of musical excellence week after week. Very few venues can pull off with such illuminating star wattage. Michael Schade, Anne Schwanewilms, and Barbara Hannigan performed in two concerts with two larger-than-life conductors Thielemann and Rattle. We were taken on three thrilling adventures.
Lyric Opera of Chicago’s original and superbly cast production of Hector Berlioz’s Les Troyens has provided the musical public with a treasured opportunity to appreciate one of the great operatic achievements of the nineteenth century.
The Little Opera Company opened its 21st season by championing its own, as it presented the world premiere of Winnipeg composer Neil Weisensel’s Merry Christmas, Stephen Leacock.
In 2015, Bampton Classical Opera’s production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio - a UK premiere - received well-deserved accolades: ‘a revelation ... the music is magnificent’ (Seen and Heard International), ‘giddily exciting, propelled by wit, charm and bags of joy’ (The Spectator), ‘lively, inventive ... a joy from start to finish’ (The Oxford Times), ‘They have done Salieri proud’ (The Arts Desk) and ‘an enthusiastic performance of riotously spirited music’ (Opera Britannia) were just some of the superlative compliments festooned by the critical press.
How many singers does it take to make an opera? There are single-role operas - Schönberg’s Erwartung (1924) and Eight Songs for a Mad King by Peter Maxwell Davies (1969) spring immediately to mind - and there are operas that just require a pair of performers, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart i Salieri (1897) or The Telephone by Menotti (1947).
Now in its 31st year, the 2016 Christmas Festival at St John’s Smith Square has offered sixteen concerts performed by diverse ensembles, among them: the choirs of King’s College, London and Merton College, Oxford; Christchurch Cathedral Choir, Oxford; The Gesualdo Six; The Cardinall’s Musick; The Tallis Scholars; the choirs of Trinity College and Clare College, Cambridge; Tenebrae; Polyphony and the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightment.
As 2016 draws to a close, we stand on the cusp of a post-Europe, pre-Trump world. Perhaps we will look back on current times with the nostalgic romanticism of Richard Strauss’s 1911 paean to past glories, comforts and certainties: Der Rosenkavalier.
Ah, Loft Opera. It’s part of the experience to wander down many dark streets, confused and lost, in a part of Brooklyn you’ve never been. It is that exclusive—you can’t even find the performance!
Let’s start by getting a couple of gripes out of the way. First, the final act of Die Walküre does not constitute a full-length concert, even with a distinguished cast and orchestra, and with animated drawings fluttering on a giant screen.
When you combine two charismatic New York stage divas with the artistry of Los Angeles Opera, you have a mix that explodes into singing, dancing and an evening of superb entertainment.
Roderick Williams’ and Julius Drake’s English Winter Journey seems such a perfect concept that one wonders why no one had previously thought of compiling a sequence of 24 songs by English composers to mirror, complement and discourse with Schubert’s song-cycle of love and loss.
A historical afternoon at the NTR Saturday Matinee occurred with an epic concert version of Prokofiev’s Soviet Opera Semyon Kotko.
Opening night at the Metropolitan is a gleeful occasion even when the composer is long gone, but December 1st was an opening for a living composer who has been making waves around the world and is, gasp, a woman — the second woman composer ever to have an opera presented at the Met.
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.