Tuesday 13 February 2018

Erich Korngold’s Die tote Stadt at the Semperoper, Dresden

Korngold: Die tote Stadt - Semperoper, Dresden (Photo David Baltzer)
Korngold: Die tote Stadt - Semperoper, Dresden (Photo David Baltzer)
Erich Korngold Die tote Stadt; Florian Daum, Grace Durham, Burkhard Fritz, Tahnee Niboro, Timothy Oliver, Michael Porter, Manuela Uhl, Tichina Vaughn, dir: David Bösch, cond: Dmitri Jurowski; Semperoper, Dresden
Reviewed by Tony Cooper on Feb 2 2018 Star rating: 4.0
Erich Korngold’s Die tote Stadt is a big hit in its first staging at the Semperoper, Dresden

Korngold: Die tote Stadt - Burkhard Fritz, Manuela Uhl - Semperoper, Dresden (Photo David Baltzer)
Burkhard Fritz, Manuela Uhl (Photo David Baltzer)
Written during the First World War by the teenage Korngold, already an internationally-successful composer, Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) is based on the 1892 Symbolist novel, Bruges-la-Morte, by the well-known Belgian writer Georges Rodenbach and set to a libretto by Paul Schott, a collective pseudonym for the composer and his father, Julius Korngold. By the time of its première, Korngold was just 23 years old. David Bösch's production, the first time the work has been given at the Semperoper in Dresden, debuted in December 2017. On 2 February 2018, conducted by Dmitri Jurowski the performance featured Burkhard Fritz and Manuela Uhl as Paul and Marietta, with Sebastian Wartig as Frank/Fritz and Tichina Vaughn as Brigitta.

Mahler described Korngold as a ‘musical genius’ and recommended him study with the celebrated Viennese-born composer, Alexander von Zemlinsky. Richard Strauss also spoke highly of him, too. Praise, indeed!

Overcoming the loss of a loved one, the theme of Die tote Stadt, resonated with contemporary audiences of the 1920s who had just come through the trauma and grief of the First World War. This most probably fuelled the opera’s success.

It was certainly one of the biggest hits of the 1920s and now a big hit at the Semperoper. And within two years of its première Die tote Stadt travelled the world receiving a host of performances at The Met while the Berlin première took place in 1924 with the two central characters, Paul and Marie/Marietta, performed by Richard Tauber and Lotte Lehmann. The conductor was George Szell.

Although often performed in Germany this was the first time that it has been staged at the Semperoper. Sadly, it’s rarely seen in the UK. The Nazi régime didn’t help in sustaining the opera’s popularity and banned it because of Korngold’s Jewish ancestry and, therefore, following the Second World War, it fell into obscurity. Key post-war revivals were at the Vienna Volksoper (1967) and New York City Opera (1975).

Korngold: Die tote Stadt - Burkhard Fritz - Semperoper, Dresden (Photo David Baltzer)
Burkhard Fritz - Semperoper, Dresden (Photo David Baltzer)
The UK première didn’t take place, in fact, until January 1996 and this was by way of a concert performance by the Kensington Symphony Orchestra conducted by Russell Keable at the Queen Elizabeth Hall featuring Ian Caley and Christine Teare. However, the first UK staged performance was at the Royal Opera House in January 2009.

A glorious and well-structured work with a sad storyline, I’ve heard a lot about Die tote Stadt from my German friends but this was the first time that I have had the opportunity of seeing it. In fact, I was already in Dresden attending Willy Decker’s Ring and Die tote Stadt fitted in nicely between performances of Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung. What a bonus!

Right from the opening scene portraying the Flemish city of Bruges - a city of loss, a city of neurosis and a city of memories for the main protagonist, Paul - to the closing scene, it kept my interest alive in a production that truly encompassed the aura of Symbolism - an artistic movement originating in the late 19th century in Belgium and France and included such prominent writers as Stéphane Mallarmé, Maurice Maeterlinck and Paul Verlaine - which uses symbolic images and, indirectly, suggestions expressing mystical ideas, emotions and the state of mind.

Indeed, the scenario surrounded the unstable, emotional and utterly-confused character of Paul, a middle-class widowed artist - depressed, lonely and bewildered - wandering about his rather shabby and untidy studio/living space which he has turned into a shrine (The Temple of Memories) devoted to his late wife, Marie. Trapped in tearful memories, Paul’s cared for by his housekeeper, Brigitta, and regularly visited by his good friend, Frank.

Korngold: Die tote Stadt - Manuela Uhla - Semperoper, Dresden (Photo David Baltzer)
Manuela Uhl - Semperoper, Dresden (Photo David Baltzer)
He’s constantly gazing at a portrait of Marie and a host of old photographs of her are stuck here, there and everywhere (crafted by video technology) offering Paul some form of comfort while her Christian name is graphitised in large capital letters across one of the studio walls. Basic home comforts included an easy-chair, a Persian carpet and a standard-lamp. But Paul adds to his suffering by keeping a lock of Marie’s golden hair secretly hidden in a casket by his bedside.

In his mind Marie is still very much alive and in conversation with Frank he confides in him that he has met a woman in Bruges who, uncannily, is a striking resemblance to her. In fact, Paul clearly thinks it is her. Therefore, he invites her back to his studio and on arrival Paul addresses her as Marie but she corrects him immediately.

But Marietta, a vivacious, young and attractive dancer from Lille and a member of a touring Pierrot troupe is far from being the young, pure and chaste girl that he so desires. She’s flirtatious to the extreme and Paul finds this aspect of her nature slightly disturbing and subjects her to his sexual dreams and fantasies compounded by a violent streak running through his nature. Suspicious as always and finding himself on the edge (he’s never far away from it) he suspects Marietta is having an affair with Frank.

Marietta, however, is slightly dismayed by his strange and obsessive behaviour towards her and she emphatically states that she’s a free woman to do what she likes but, nonetheless, she persists in trying to interest him in her charms and in doing so, sings Glück das mir verblieb’ (‘Joy that near to me remained’), a highly romantic and appealing number often referred to as the ‘Lute Song’. The words tell of the joy of faithful love but there’s great sadness, too, as its theme also speaks of the transitoriness of life.

Torn between his loyalty to Marie and his interest in Marietta he collapses into a chair and begins to hallucinate. He sees Marie’s ghost step out of her portrait urging him not to forget her but then the vision of her changes and tells Paul to go and move on with his life.

Korngold: Die tote Stadt - Burkhard Fritz, Manuela Uhl - Semperoper, Dresden (Photo David Baltzer)
Korngold: Die tote Stadt - Burkhard Fritz, Manuela Uhl - Semperoper, Dresden (Photo David Baltzer)
Although his vision continues he’s living unharmoniously with Marietta but she gets fed up with his quirks and continuing obsession with Marie and taunts him feverishly by dancing seductively while stroking a lock of his dead wife’s hair. In a rage, Paul grabs the lock of hair and strangles her but only after making love to her. Holding her dead body he exclaims: ‘Now she’s exactly like Marie.’ Immediately, he snaps out of his dream and is astonished that Marietta’s body is nowhere to be found. Quickly collecting his thoughts, Marietta suddenly returns to pick up her umbrella which she left behind - an old lovers’ trick, for sure.

With the shock of such a traumatic dream still fresh in his mind, Paul finds himself in the company of Frank and Brigitta and as Frank begins to depart from the Flemish city of Bruges he asks Paul to come with him. ‘I shall try to,’ he replies. The opera ends with a reprise of ‘Glück, das mir verblieb’ sung by Paul in what is, apparently, his last time pondering and wrapped up in The Temple of Memories. But is it?

Singing the demanding and physical role of Paul one couldn’t ask for better than the Hamburg-born tenor, Burkhard Fritz, who delivered a strong and authoritative reading of the stricken widower while the German soprano, Manuela Uhl, from Ravensburg, Upper Swabia, was sensational as Marie/Marietta. Not only did she play the part in an openly-coquettish way but her stage movement and youthful mannerisms were erotically charged while her voice cut through Korngold’s ravishing score like a knife through butter. And in 'Marietta’s Lied', Ms Uhl’s voice - luminous to the extreme especially in the upper register - was crystal clear.

But excellent performances emanated, too, from Sebastian Wartig in the dual role of Frank/Fritz the Pierrot. What a singer! Harbouring a rich and warm baritone voice he was heard to good effect in the lovely and romantic ballad ‘Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen’ while the American mezzo-soprano, Tichina Vaughn, as Brigitta, organised, dutiful and respectful to Paul, excelled in her role delivering a brilliant performance musically as well as dramatically speaking.

German-born conductor, Dmitri Jurowski, grandson of composer Vladimir Michailovich Jurowski, was in the pit overseeing a marvellous and invigorating performance with the Sächsische Staatskapelle Dresden. They captured the imagination (and reality) of Korngold’s romantic and cinematic score (a hint of Richard Strauss was in there somewhere) supported by the Sächsischer Staatsopernchor Dresden and the Kinderchor der Sächsischen Staatsoper Dresden.

Korngold: Die tote Stadt -  Semperoper, Dresden (Photo David Baltzer)
Korngold: Die tote Stadt -  Semperoper, Dresden (Photo David Baltzer)
And German-born theatre director, David Bösch, who made his Royal Opera House début a couple of years ago directing Verdi’s Il trovatore, came up with an amazing and satisfying production that clearly identified the imaginary elements of the opera while Patrick Bannwart’s video sequences, executed in a fragmented black-and-white-type format, well suited the re-enactment, for instance, of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection and the Procession of the Holy Blood which, incidentally, dates back to the early 14th century and held every year in Bruges on Ascension Day.

The creative team was completed by Falko Herold who produced a stunning wardrobe especially for members of the Pierrot troupe. Their costumes were bright and highly-decorative à la Commedia dell’Arte while Fabio Antoci’s lighting complemented well the moody, atmospheric and darkness of the opera overall.
Reviewed by Tony Cooper

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