Nearly ninety years after its glitzy double premiere in Hamburg and Cologne, Korngold's Die tote Stadt has finally made it to a British stage. Willy Decker's 2004 Salzburg production has already done the rounds, having been seen in Vienna, Amsterdam, Barcelona and San Francisco before arriving at Covent Garden.
Last year the Royal Festival Hall hosted the UK premiere – in concert – of Korngold's fourth opera, Das Wunder der Heliane (1927), and now the composer's rehabilitation would seem to be complete. We have a chance to judge Die tote Stadt on its merits and, alas, talk of a forgotten masterpiece seems, on this showing, to be some way wide of the mark.
A great success at its premiere and numerous subsequent performances in the 1920s, the opera sank into obscurity as Korngold fell foul of Nazi cultural policy, before fleeing to the United States, where he more or less single-handedly defined the language of the Hollywood film score. Vienna had been the scene of his astonishing early triumphs, yet attempts after the Second World War by Korngold to re-establish himself in the city were unsuccessful. His defenders have fought against snobbery regarding Korngold's 'defection' to film music and have pointed to the brilliance of his early achievements, as well as the refinement of later works such as the Symphony in F Sharp. Operatic hopes have been pinned on Die tote Stadt, yet it looks set to remain a rarity.
The main fault with the work must lie with the libretto. This was credited to a certain Paul Schott until in the 1970s it was revealed as the work of Korngold and his father, Julius. Korngold senior was the critic of Vienna's Neue freie Presse and openly promoted his son against, among others, Schoenberg and Richard Strauss (who took over as joint director of the Vienna Opera in 1919). They made several changes to the basic plot of Georges Rodenbach's novel Bruges-la-Morte, on which it's based, yet the most significant is the decision to have most of Acts Two and Three happen in a dream. Therefore, the majority of the action, including a brutal murder, is revealed in a somewhat perfunctory final scene as having never happened.
In the hands of another composer, this might not have been so problematic. However, for all the talent Korngold displays in a score of kaleidoscopic inventiveness, he fails to elicit any sympathy in the characters or situations through musical means. Marietta's Act One 'Lute Song' and the Pierrot's song in Act Two are both justly famous, and the music as we gradually slip into Paul's hallucinatory world at the end of the first act is also highly effective.
The rest of the score, however, remains fragmentary and disconcertingly polyglot. Korngold develops no strategy for binding the whole thing together into any sort of coherent arc and without this each forty-five minute act struggles to hold the attention. The vocal line, particularly for the two principals, is heavily entwined into the musical texture but launches into top notes without any preparation, sounding disjointed and arbitrary. Korngold tries on several occasions to weave his two 'hit' tunes back into the fabric but never convincingly; if Joseph Kerman would chastise Puccini for re-using an irrelevant theme at the end of Tosca, I can't imagine he'd have had many kind words for Korngold's lazy reprise of Marietta's Lied in the opera's final minutes.
Willy Decker's production seems all too aware of the work's main weaknesses but, unfortunately, chooses to emphasise them. Therefore for the dream sequences we are plunged into a bizarre, surreal parallel universe that takes us even further from reality. Portraits of Paul's dead wife form an obsessive leitmotif throughout the production and we have to make do with a pair of these – one whole, one split up – to depict her old room in Act One. The lock of her hair that he treats as a relic becomes a whole head of hair, which a predominantly bald Marietta later mockingly puts on as a wig. There's some clever work with the scenery but Paul, confusingly, witnesses some episodes as if he's dreaming, the action taking place in a distant mirror image of his room, whereas others he seems to experience first hand. The commedia dell'arte scene he both dreams and participates in. And if the desire to emphasise the Freudian undercurrents is justifiable, ultimately we lose track of the conscious surface it informs; we identify less and less with this already distant dream world and it further erodes our ability to become emotionally involved.
German soprano Nadja Michael brings the same lithe, handsome stage presence and physicality to the role of Marie/Marietta as we'd witnessed in her performance of Salome early in 2008. There is no denying her ability as an actor but vocally she struggled. A former mezzo, there are times when she really grabs hold of a note – usually above the stave at forte or louder – and can make a thrilling sound. Here, though, these occasions were rare; more often her intonation was wildly off the mark and she transmitted little of the text. Her tender music in Act One, from the famous aria to Maria's consoling words as Paul dreams, suffered worst, and it was therefore impossible to enjoy some of the score's best moments.
As Paul, American tenor Stephen Gould sang with hugely impressive stamina. His is not an instrument to melt the heart and there were occasional problems with tuning but, if anything, he improved as the evening progressed in one of the most taxing roles in the repertoire. He threw himself gamely into the acting demands of the production but failed to blend dramatically – or vocally for that matter – with Michael. Leading the secondary cast was Gerald Finley's thoughtful and beautifully sung performance of Frank and Fritz. Kathleen Wilkinson captured both the caring and disapproving side of Paul's housekeeper, Brigitta, yet there was something comic about her telling him 'I'm going to church' whilst strapped to a crucifix carried by nuns.
While the vocal challenges of the opera are immense, the conductor also has his work cut out keeping the diverse elements of Korngold's score under control. Ingo Metzmacher had obviously worked hard with the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, who sounded very much at home in the idiom. While the lyrical moments, which feature some of the composer's most intoxicating touches of orchestration, were beautifully done, there was sometimes a feeling of compromise elsewhere. Although Metzmacher was naturally concerned about balance, there were times when one couldn't help wishing that he'd let the music off the leash and let us hear Korngold's exuberance unfettered.
With an outstanding cast and a production that helps to draw the audience in, Die tote Stadt might have made a stronger impression. Ultimately, it's an interesting yet flawed work that's not likely ever to find its way back into the repertory. I'd be surprised if we have to wait another ninety years for its return, but for anyone interested in opera of the period, it's worth catching.
By Hugo Shirley
Photo Credits: Bill Cooper
Gerald Finley talks about his roles in Die tote Stadt and Doctor Atomic (Interview)
Review of Salome at the Royal Opera with Nadja Michael (David McVicar's Production)
Review of Das Wunder der Heliane at the Royal Festival Hall
Nikolaj Znaider performs Korngold's Violin Concerto with LPO/Jurowski (concert review)