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Christian Dalzon, April 2011

Erich Wolfgang Korngold was only twenty-three when Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) premiered in 1920. It was his fourth opera. The work remained popular in Europe for a few decades but never seems to have made it to standard repertoire, in spite of an ongoing revival with recent productions in Vienna, London, New York, San Francisco, Barcelona, Salzburg, and Strasbourg.

The libretto by Paul Schott (Erich W. Korngold’s father’s nom de plume) closely follows the novel Bruges la morte (albeit with a different ending) by George Rodenbach. It depicts the inner psychological drama of a man’s morbid obsession with his dead wife, how he meets another woman who physically resembles her closely, but with a quite different persona.

Arguably enough, Inga Levant’s production retells the story from Rodenbach’s point of view, with Paul slitting his wrists and collapsing against a door capped with a “NO EXIT” sign, contrary to the libretto’s ending where Paul is cured from his obsession and vows to start a new life. However, it is amazing to see how Korngold’s music fits a different outcome. The morbid, heavily Freudian staging, packed with numerous symbols (dolls, skeletons, and other psychedelic twaddle), and cinematic associations, are soon overlooked. Charles Edward’s surreal sets and costumes efficiently blend hallucination and reality, while the placeless and timeless setting make Paul’s plight quite universal.

This production benefits from an excellent cast. The two leading roles are notoriously demanding in terms of vocal range and heft. Both tenor Torsten Kerl (Paul) and Angela Denoke’s hefty soprano (Marietta) impressively serve their devilish parts. Dramatically, all cast members are highly convincing and do not suffer from the oddities of the staging. Stephan Genz as Fritz the Pierrot, Yuri Batukov as Frank, and Birgitta Svenden as Brigitta do commendable justice to their respective parts.

At the helm of the Strasbourg Orchestre philharmonique, conductor Jan Latham-Koenig gives a highly sensitive account of Korngold’s dense and sumptuous score. His subtle painting of the kaleidoscopic colors of the music never impedes the rhythmic clarity.

Erich Korngold, April 2010

A Review of EW Korngold: Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) Arthaus Musik DVD from Strasbourg in 2001 (Latham&ndasd;Koenig/ Kerl, Denoke, Batukov)

‘Die Toten schicken solche Traüme,..................... The dead send dreams like that to haunt us,
wenn wir zu viel mit und in ihnen leben................ if we don’t let them find peace in slumber.
Wie weit soll unsre Trauer gehen?........................ How long shall we then mourn for them?
Wie weit darf sie es, ohne uns zu entwurzeln?......How long must we grieve before we are uprooted?
Schmerzlicher Zwiespalt des Gefühls!.................It is a bitter dilemma we must face!’
--- Paul Schrott, Die tote Stadt

This fascinating opera by Erich Wolfgang Korngold is based on a murderously mesmerizing novel (Burges la Mrte) & play (The Mirror) by George Rodenbach, about the destructive power of morbid obsession of past or lost love.

In the novel, Hughes, the widower whose inability to let go of his deceased wife led him to settle in the gloomy dead city of Bruges (in Flanders), spends his days either staring at his wife’s photos in the shrine he had set up for her in one of his rooms or out for solitary walks along the silent streets of the once flourishing seaport that had yielded its riches and vitality to Antwerp to the south. On one of his walks, Hughes encounters Jane, a dancer from Lille who resembles his dead wife from head to toe. He becomes obsessed with her and proceeds in a moody courtship befitting the gloominess of the city they reside in. It soon becomes apparent that Jane has a mind of her own and is not content with being a mere physical stand&ndasd;in for a dead woman, however. Her fierce mockery of his hypocrisy (his repetitive proclamation of faithfulness to his wife’s memory doesn’t seem to jive with his enjoyment of carnal pleasure courtesy of Jane’s flesh) and her attack on the lock of hair that Hughes keeps as his wife’s relic lead to a tragic ending of the melancholic story.

Though the opera, adapted from the novel by Korngold’s father (Julius Korngold, writing under the pseudonym Paul Schrott) follows much of the actions in the book, it actually has a very different outlook. It opens with Paul (Hughes)’s maid, Brigitta (Barbe), showing his visiting friend, Frank (does not appear in the book), around the house and especially the shrine to Paul’s dead wife, Marie. Paul bursts in claiming that Marie had returned to him in life and that he had invited her to his place. Marietta (Jane) the dancer appears and, being given Marie’s lute by Paul, proceeds to singing him an old song (which also happens to be the ‘our song’ for Paul and Marie!). Sensing his progress into sullenness, she leaves to join her dance troupe in a rehearsal of Meyerbeer’s diabolic opera, Robert le Diable….

Paul then sees the ghost of his dead wife appearing to question his faithfulness. A devilishly seductive Marietta appears both to taunt and to enchant him. Alienated from the faithful Brigitta and Frank (after a row over who is to get to see Marietta romantically), the distressed Paul then crashes Marietta’s rehearsal of the nuns scene from Robert le Diable (where the dead Helene pops out of her grave to gyrate an unbecomingly erotic dance). Marietta’s determination to reintroduce him to the world of the living ultimately wins out, however, and they retire to his house to consummate their lust. Awoken alone on Corpus Christi Day, Marietta roams around Paul’s shrine to Marie and is so offended by Paul’s sudden case of the righteous and his tactless declaration that he only thinks of Marie even as he enjoys Marietta’s physique that she seizes Marie’s lock of golden hair and mocks him as she dances around with it wrapped around her neck. Overcame by rage, Paul strangles her…

But all that takes place in the paragraph above is just Paul’s ‘dream’. He awakens alone startled to not see a corpse on the floor. Brigitta enters with the very much alive Marietta, who had returned to retrieve her umbrella and roses. Frank, sensing a change in his friend, asks Paul to leave this downcast city (and the past) behind with him. And Paul ends the opera singing his farewell to the past and looking forward to re&ndasd;entering the world of the living.

So that’s what the libretto says…. You would be surprised to know that I really hadn’t spoiled the real suspense in this thing even with all the plot given above (whose ending is different from the novel’s). The main attraction in the staging of this weirdly psychological opera, aside from Korngold’s sumptuous music score, is in the how the warped duality between reality and Paul’s hallucination is suggested and interpreted. Korngold uses leitmotifs through out this opera, and the dark melancholy of the ‘Paul’s yearning for Marie’ motif (taken from the show’s most famous bit of music, Marietta’s Lute Song) really only adds to its interpretative possibilities.

The only other staging of this opera that I’ve seen was from a televised broadcast of Götz Friedrich’s take on it from Deutsche Oper Berlin (starring James King and Karan Armstrong), and I must say that it is quite amazing how Korngold’s music is able to accommodate staged ending that portrays the total opposite of the optimism of the opera’s libretto. The Friedrich staging, at least, is ‘traditional’ looking, and provides ample clues for the audience to know when they are seeing ‘reality’ and when they are seeing Paul’s dream. By the final scene, we know that all of Act 2 and the earlier part of Act 3 had only happened in Paul’s head… though Paul really doesn’t ‘get on with life’ in the end. This production from Strasbourg is similar in its outlook, though still it is different… and in a rather interestingly manner. How so? That’s something for you to seek out the DVD and see for yourself!

Paul ::: Torsten Kerl (tenor)
Marie/Marietta ::: Angela Denoke (soprano)
Frank ::: Yuri Batukov (baritone)
Brigitta ::: Birgitta Svenden (alto)
Juliette ::: Barbara Beier (soprano)
Lucienne ::: Julia Desch (soprano)
Victorin ::: Christian Baumgärtel (tenor)
Fritz the Pierrot ::: Stephan Genz (baritone)
Jan Latham&ndasd;Koenig/ Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg & Chorus of the Opera National du Rhin,
Directed by Inga Levant

This production at the Opera National du Rhin profits handsomely from the excellent cast, especially in the two leading roles of Paul and Marietta/Marie, which are notoriously difficult to cast. They are extremely demanding in terms of vocal range and heft, with treacherously high tessitura, and requiring some really convincing stage acting.

The music is cinematic (after all, Korngold is famous for his film scores), with a good blend of melodic passages and drama&ndasd;oriented dissonance. The orchestration is extremely dense, although usually not when someone is singing (it is educational how he creates this really cool effect of having Paul engage in conversation with the orchestra during his monologues as if he is talking to his own alter ego). A lot of credit should go to Maestro Jan Latham&ndasd;Koenig for his beautifully sensitive leadership of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Strasbourg, which takes great care to never cover the voices even during Paul’s many pianissimo passages. Although we don’t get to see the gray old Bruges, the essence of the city that Korngold recalls is well represented by the orchestra.

Not being a fanatic of German opera, I wasn’t familiar with Torsten Kerl before, and so encountering him for the first time in this monstrous role is a real treat. The voice is beautifully focused… with a noble timbre that reminds of the late Deon Van Der Walt. Though Kerl’s tenor has more of that fetching metallic blend that suggests a heldentenor in the making (I wouldn’t be surprise to find him singing Tristan a few years down the road). The top is less ‘ringing’ than what you’d hear of James King or Rene Kollo, especially when he sings below mezzoforte (when he blast out the held B&ndasd;flats at f and ff, though, he really threatens to destroy your expensive crystal collections), though he is an intelligent singer who uses his clear German diction to great advantage…. It is wonderful to hear a tenor with such a voice who also seems to revel in singing softly. And he sounds better and better as the show progresses, being at his best by end of the show! His acting may seem over the top for some, but I think it fits very well with this really psychological and surreal staging. Making a bipolar maniac of a character like this sympathetic is quite much to ask, but that is just what Kerl delivers. Bravo!

Angela Denoke… even though showcasing an impressively sweet yet hefty voice, there are a few tentative high tones that make me wonder if she wasn’t in top form during this run, but her performance of the triple role (for all intent and purposes; the ghost of Marie, the real Marietta, and the manic vision of Marietta) is nothing short of mesmerizing. She is asked to do quite a lot while singing the part’s devilish music (not the least of which is a rather credible impersonation of Marilyn Monroe and her up&ndasd;drafting skirt), and delivers all of it while convincingly conveys the many personalities of her role in her singing. Aside from the sterlingly sung final scene by Kerl, Marietta’s duets with Paul are the musical highlights of the show. This Marietta is really more … fierce.. than I imagined. She isn’t as motivated by the mission to reclaim Paul from his morbid obsession as her own competitiveness (and absolutely refusing to lose even a moody grouch to a dead competition!). I don’t know why Inga Levant feels it necessary for the nightmare Marietta to develop a very pregnant belly at the start of Act III, but with Denoke’s totally committed singing and acting, distractions like that (and that weird boy who comes in to play the piano during Marietta’s lute song and Paul’s final scene) are easily overlooked.

The supporting roles are mostly well sung and acted, with Stephan Genz standing out as Fritz the Pierrot in his enchanting rendition of the Tanzlied (Mein Sehen, mein Wähnen). Yuri Batukov’s Frank seems to have a serious crush on Birgitta Svenden’s 60&ndasd;yrs&ndasd;old&ndasd;virgin&ndasd;esque Brigitta (referring to her stage direction and costume, that is), who gets her character’s tender feelings for Paul across even without much to sing.

Inga Levant’s staging here at Strasbourg uses Charles Edwards’ surreal set and her imagination to blend the ‘real’ and the ‘dream’ sequences together in a very admirably ambiguous manner. She goes even further than Friedrich’s Berlin staging in retelling the story from Rodenbach’s point of view rather than Korngold’s. It is amazing that the music actually seems to fit this ending just as well as it does the ending that Korngold envisioned. There is no city of Bruges (at least not one you would recognize) in this psychedelic setting, though that is just as well since Bruges today is quite different from the dead city that Rodenbach portrays in his novel (thanks very much to modern tourism )… This warped placeless and timeless setting makes Paul’s plights quite universally relatable. Obsessive clinging to the idealized past is a psychological condition that can strike us no matter where we reside in the world… though the staging of the ending of this production can spark some good debates on whether Korngold’s nostalgically melancholy final chords are meant to depict a deliverance to a new life/beginning or a deliverance/escape from the old life’s miseries (not necessarily the same thing)… no matter what the libretto actually says. There are some oddities, to be sure, but on the whole it is a weird staging that fits a weird opera in much the way the weird combo of peanut butter and jelly actually works in a sandwich. Thanks also to Don Kent’s excellent video direction for capturing the entire thing from all the right angles!

It is a shame that Die tote Stadt isn’t staged more (but then considering how murderously loud the modern orchestra can get when not led by a voice&ndasd;loving conductor and how destructive that would be to the lead singers of this work…. that’s totally understandable). This Arthaus Musik DVD is a true gem worth discovering for all who love classical music and good drama. The conceptualized and very psychedelic staging might throw some of you off at first, but if you can suspend your judgment of it beyond the first act of the show you will likely find it too fascinating to not see all the way through (sort of like those weird films by David Lynch, really). The musical performance is fabulous. The acting is oddly convincing. Korngold’s music is richly chromatically melodic in ways you wouldn’t expect from a modern composer. The visual and audio works are well done and edited. Two thumbs way up and I can only wish to scoot up the coast to San Francisco and actually catch Torsten Kerl sings Paul live in the SFO’s run of this opera this October!

1 DVD. Run&ndasd;time: 145 min. Sung in German with subtitle in: English, French, Spanish, Japanese. No extra. Booklet contains cast list, track list, and note on Korngold’s writing of Die tote Stadt, this production, and the leading cast members in English, French, and German.

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