Monday 2 February 2009

Review of Die tote Stadt

It is a measure of how voice types changed, and how orchestras have got louder, that the role of Paul on Korngold's Die tode Stadt was one of Richard Tauber's major roles. Tauber could in no way be described as an heroic tenor, but nowadays if Korngold's opera is performed at all it is given with an heroic tenor as Paul. At Covent Garden on Friday (only the works 2nd staged outing ever in the UK), Paul was sung by Stephen Gould and Marie/Marietta by Nadja Michael. Neither singer could be described as lyric in any shape or form; Michael was previously a mezzo-soprano and numbers Salome in her repertoire.

Both had little problem projecting over Korngold's large orchestra. Korngold's style is in many ways a sort of super-charged Richard Strauss, his operas live in the hinterland between Strauss and say Schreker. There are lyrical moments, but much of the music is gorgeously taxing. Both Paul (Stephen Gould) and Marie/Marietta (Nadja Michael) are on stage for much of the time so that complaining that their performances were a little effortful is a bit unfair as Korngold gives them so much of a challenge. It is unfair so complain that Tauber and Lehmann on their recording of the work's famous duet, make the piece sound far more beautiful than Gould and Michael were able to. Voices just are not like that any more. It was noticeable in the quieter moments that Michael had to make and almost audible effort to keep her vibrato in control and produce a good sense of line.

The role of Marie/Marietta calls for a sexy soprano with a gleaming, free upper voice; something that Michael does not really have. The singer I would like to hear in the role is Karita Mattila.

That said, Gould and Michael made a convincing dramatic pair. Gould's physique is hulking, anti-heroic which contrasted strikingly with Michael's slim, scantily clad form. Gerald Finley gave a master class in how things should be done, in the relatively small role of Frank/Fritz. The role is mainly unexceptional, but Fritz gets to sing the Pierrot Lied, the opera's other big number; this Finley did with his customary finesse and sense of line.

Willy Decker's production, which is already rather well travelled, was quite spectacular and Decker seemed to spare no expense when it came to an excuse for a striking stage effect. Some of it was a little over done and made the work seem an overheated result of Paul's imagination; something which seemed to pre-empt the work's remarkable finale. When we discover that much of the preceding action HAD been the result of Paul's fevered imagination.

Ingo Metzmacher kept Korngold's complex score flowing and did not allow the large orchestra to get out of hand. The result sounded gorgeous from an orchestra point of view.

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