In 1920, two years after the First World War, Europe was still dealing with its trauma. Into this postwar scenario came Erich Korngold, an ex-child prodigy, now 23, whose three-act opera Die Tote Stadt (“The Dead City”) deals with devastating loss and the break with the past needed to recover from it.
Based on Georges Rodenbach’s 1892 novel, Bruges-la-Morte, the opera features a widower, Paul, who lives in Bruges among the relics of his late wife’s possessions. When he meets a dancer who reminds him of her he begins an affair. In the novel this ends in tragedy, but the opera adopts a different take on the story, opening the way to his recovery.
His down-to-earth friend Frank plays the role of Pierrot in a diversion that helps prepare the way for the abandonment of his grief. That interlude is reminiscent of those in Richard Strauss’s opera Ariadne auf Naxos, which also deals with obsessive grief. Ariadne has been abandoned on the island of Naxos and yearns only for death, but a gloomy opera that a young composer has prepared for the wealthiest man in Vienna is hijacked at the last minute by a demand that it be performed simultaneously with a dance masquerade. The levity and irreverence of the Commedia delle Arte troupe counterbalances Ariadne’s unending despair until a new god comes along to rescue her.
In Erich Korngold ’ s Die Tote Stadt, a similar diversion helps lighten the gloomy tone, and in Carmen Jakobi ’ s production for Longborough Festival Opera, it is well staged by masked men in long black cloaks. They enter Paul ’ s apartment, festooned with pictures of his late wife. An attitude of improvisation threads its way through the staging, starting before the overture as Paul rearranges the pictures in his apartment while the orchestra tunes up. The catalyst for his eventual reconnection to the real world is the dancer Marietta, in one sense a ghost of his late wife Marie. In the original novel a coarser version of her inspires him to murder, which he recognises makes her even more like Marie, but in the opera the murder is going on in Paul ’ s mind, and reality intrudes when Marietta reappears to reclaim forgotten belongings.
The music owes debts to both Puccini and Richard Strauss, as befits one of the last great Romantic composers, but the score never quite grabs me. The libretto was written by Erich’s father Julius, and the breathless drama lacks the variation to sustain a three-act opera. The tragedy of Korngold’s life may be that he never quite managed to get away from his father. After living a transatlantic life from 1935 to 1938 between Vienna and America, where he wrote music for movies, his father joined him. That became a necessity for this Jewish family when the Germans annexed Austria in 1938. After the Nazis confiscated Korngold’s possessions he remained in Hollywood until his death in 1957. Some of his works have been rediscovered in our day and his Violin Concerto is quite popular.
Of course, if Korngold is associated with music for Hollywood movies , it is because their music is associated with him, and his talent for melody and atmosphere was clearly shown under the baton of Justin Brown. With the excellent Peter Auty as a disturbed and determined Paul, and Benson Wilson as Frank showing lyrical movement in his sub-role as Pierrot, this was a strong performance. Sadly owing to a throat infection, Rachel Nicholls was unable to sing the role of Marie/Marietta, but performed it beautifully on stage while Luci Briginshaw sang superbly from the wings, and Stephane Windsor-Lewis was very effective in multiple roles, including Paul ’ s housekeeper Brigitta.
A fine performance from Longborough, anticipating the revival of this lyrical work at the English National Opera in Spring 2023.
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