Home | Reviews | Articles | Festivals | Competitions | Other | Contact Us

Korngold Die tote Stadt

Zurich Opera April 2003

see & hear excerpts of the opera at http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=AfMIfc9z9uI


Between 1920 and 1935 this ever-intriguing opera by a mature 21 year-old, a former ‘wunderkind’ in the Mozart class, was seen on 80 stages under great conductors including Klemperer and Knappertsbuch.  The libretto was a joint effort by Erich & his father Julius, who surely warrants a biography in the annals of genius/parental studies, alongside Leopold Mozart's? 


Die tote Stadt is brilliantly equivocal and open ended, leaving just the scope for interpretation relished by contemporary directors.  We have enjoyed the controversial Opus Arte DVD from the Opera National du Rhin. It is an opera which will always provoke controversy. Dream and reality are mixed in a way that makes us lose our bearings in the company of the ever more deranged, obsessed Paul, and of the Marie/Marietta dichotomy representing life and death, past and future, both wonderful operatic roles, surrounded by a shadowy cast of companions, and set in a sinister late 19th C Bruges.  There are suggestive links to Strauss's Salome & Ariadne.


In Sven-Eric Bechtolf's production in Zurich we are not allowed the luxury of indulging in any identification with the disturbed hero’s fascination with the woman he invited back home because she resembled the idealised love of his life (in this production Maria is seen dead in a bath). Norbert Schmittberg is sympathetic as a lost soul who had become reclusive and turned his home into a shrine, but he lacks the vocal allure which this long role demands.  Marietta, the American soprano Emily Magee, enters his strange abode, with an old-type dentist's chair at centre, a very tall woman with standard long, straight dyed blonde hair, a tart who says she is a dancer but is heavy on her feet. (In this version a real dancer is enlisted as a double to depict her in what are, anyway, Paul's psychotic/drugged fantasies.)


The clinical sets, tiled bathroom with bath and three wash basins, later an outsize bed swung round to centre stage for messy seduction scenes, are cleverly enlarged with a mirror for the entire ceiling, but are determinedly unromantic, with no references to Bruges or anywhere else to chime in with the bells we hear, with a holy procession and children singing outside, leading to the sad denouement when a deranged, drugged Paul is brought back gently to a tenuous reality and is set to leave Bruges for a new life - - ?   We are allowed no scope to mingle our own fantasies with those of the protagonists.  Nor is there any consistency - alright, most of it is a dream, so why that need? 


The aspiring sexiness of the masquerade by Marietta's cross-dressing troupe is cold and uninvolving, not shocking and certainly unarousing.  Various characters get wrapped up in yards of polythene, one of them (the dead Maria?) rolling along at the back of the room in the canal water, in which most of the characters had been slopping around getting progressively soaked. 


We are left to admire in wonderment the accomplishment of the composer, not long out of his teens, and to relish the gorgeous orchestral backdrop to the strange goings-on upon the stage; it is the orchestral contribution which is triumphant and stays vividly in the memory.  Die tote Stadt is an astonishing score, requiring the sacrifice of a couple of rows of stalls to make room in the pit for Korngold’s large orchestra, but that is handled with such skill and refinement by Welser-Most and his Zurich Opera Orchestra  that we are never unpleasantly overwhelmed.  There is constant variation of density in the orchestral texture, with ample consideration for the singers.  Schmittberg's is not a large voice, nor needs to be; Magee is often unvaryingly, unnecessarily loud, but her singing lacks subtlety or memorability  Better are two of the smaller parts, Olaf Bar excellent in his essentially ungrateful role as the concerned 'friend' - here with an old fashioned doctor's bag from which he produces a syringe and tablets, which are discreetly left for Paul to swallow.  Mezzo Cornelia Kallisch makes a great deal of the equivocal role of Paul's devoted 'housekeeper', the only characterisation which improves upon those in the Arthaus DVD  from Opera National du Rhin.


Peter Grahame Woolf