Saturday 22 December 2018

The Dead City: Robert Carsen's new production of Korngold's masterpiece in Berlin

Korngold: Die tote Stadt - Komische Oper, Berlin (Photo Iko Freese/
Korngold: Die tote Stadt - Komische Oper, Berlin (Photo Iko Freese/   
Korngold: Die tote Stadt; Aleš Briscein, Sara Jakubiak, Günter Papendell; dir: Robert Carsen, cond: Ainārs Rubiķis; Komische Oper, Berlin Reviewed by Tony Cooper on 14 December 2018 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
New production of Korngold's late-Romantic opera and musical psycho-thriller at the Komische Oper, Berlin

Korngold: Die tote Stadt - Aleš Briscein - Komische Oper, Berlin (Photo Iko Freese/
Korngold: Die tote Stadt - Aleš Briscein
Komische Oper, Berlin
(Photo Iko Freese/   
Working together with the new general music director of Komische Oper, Ainārs Rubiķis, Canadian star director, Robert Carsen, made his début at this imposing house located on Behrenstraße just a few steps from Unter den Linden with Korngold's Die tote Stadt (The Dead City), this musical psycho-thriller about the difficulty of letting go and the necessity of doing so (seen 14 December 2018), with Aleš Briscein, Sara Jakubiak and Günter Papendell.

The close-knit scenario surrounds Paul and follows the death of his wife Marie. Isolated from the outside world, he has sequestered himself in his Temple of Memories and lives solely for the memory of his deceased wife until he encounters the dancer Marietta, the spitting image of Marie. He falls instantly in love with her but, ultimately, seeks only to bring the woman he has lost back to life. Paul becomes ever more enmeshed in his obsessive love until catastrophe strikes. Was it all a dream? A trick of the subconscious mind? What secret lurks behind the death of his beloved wife?

A late-romantic masterpiece written during the First World War by the teenage Korngold, already an internationally-successful composer, Die tote Stadt 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. The work - which at the time of its première the composer was just 23 years old - leads one deep into the impenetrable confusion of the subconscious mind and the morbidity and the symbolic ambiguity of the piece is wholly in keeping with the spirit of fin-de-siècle.

Korngold took the operatic world by storm by this work (his first-full length piece) at one point the most-frequently performed composer on the German stage until the National Socialists brought his operatic career to a premature close. In recent decades, however, his works have finally been experiencing the revival they deserve.

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. As such, this most probably fuelled the opera’s success.

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.

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).

The UK première didn’t take place until January 1996 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 but, sadly, it’s still rarely seen on our shores.

A glorious and well-structured work with a sad storyline it grabs my fancy every time I see it. 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 - at lost in a rather grand home hosting a shrine to his late wife Marie - the Temple of Memories. Trapped in tearful memories, he’s cared for by his housekeeper Brigitta and regularly visited by his good friend, Frank.

Korngold: Die tote Stadt - Aleš Briscein, Sara Jakubiak - Komische Oper, Berlin (Photo Iko Freese/
Korngold: Die tote Stadt - Aleš Briscein, Sara Jakubiak
Komische Oper, Berlin (Photo Iko Freese/   
He’s constantly gazing at his late wife’s portrait which offers him some form of comfort but he adds to his suffering by keeping a lock of her 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.

A vivacious, young and attractive dancer from Lille and a member of a touring Pierrot troupe, Marietta 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 always on the edge (he’s never far away from it, though) 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 wants 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 transitory of life.

Torn between his loyalty to Marie and his interest in Marietta he collapses and begins to hallucinate. He sees Marie’s ghost (portrayed by video technology created by Will Duke) urging him not to forget her but then the vision of her changes and tells Paul to go and move on with his life.

Although his vision continues he’s living unharmoniously with Marietta but she gets bored with his quirks and continuing obsession with Marie and taunts him feverishly by dancing seductively on his bed while stroking 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.’ But is she?

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, the 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 Czech tenor, Aleš Briscein, last seen at Komische Oper in the pivotal role of Lensky in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. He delivered a strong and authoritative reading of the stricken widower while American soprano, Sara Jakubiak, was sensational in the dual role of Marie/Marietta in keeping with the German soprano, Manuela Uhl, whom I saw in the role in Dresden earlier in the year [see Tony's review]. 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 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 German baritone Günter Papendell in the dual role of Frank/Fritz the Pierrot. 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 Dutch mezzo-soprano, Maria Fiselier, as Brigitta, organised, dutiful and respectful to Paul, excelled in her role delivering a brilliant performance musically as well as dramatically speaking.

Robert Carsen came up trumps with a compelling and satisfying production that clearly identified the imaginary elements of the opera whilst the big and emotional scene re-enacting the Procession of the Holy Blood (dating back to the early 14th century and held every year in Bruges on Ascension Day) was medieval mysticism at its most poignant witnessing a host of processional float-bearers carrying statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary complete with white-coloured electric-light-bulb halos floating through a sea of dry ice with movement conjured up by the choreographer, Rebecca Howell. The creative team was completed by Petra Reinhardt who produced a stunning wardrobe while Robert Carsen and Peter van Praet’s lighting complemented well the moody, atmospheric and darkness of the opera overall.

Korngold: Die tote Stadt - Komische Oper, Berlin (Photo Iko Freese/    *
Korngold: Die tote Stadt - Komische Oper, Berlin (Photo Iko Freese/    *
Latvian-born conductor, Ainārs Rubiķis - the new music director of Komische Oper from the start of the current season - was in the pit overseeing a marvellous and invigorating performance with the Orchester der Komischen Oper Berlin. 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 Chorsolisten Komischen Oper Berlin and Kinderchor Komischen Oper Berlin.

Director (Robert Carsen)
Conductor (Ainārs Rubiķis)
Costumes (Petra Reinhardt)
Choreographer (Rebecca Howell)
Dramaturgy (Maximilian Hagemeyer)
Lighting (Robert Carsen / Peter van Praet)
Video (Will Duke)
Paul (Aleš Briscein)
Marie/Marietta (Sara Jakubiak)
Frank, Paul’s Friend / Fritz, The Pierrot (Günter Papendell)
Brigitta, Paul’s Housekeeper (Maria Fiselier)
Juliette (Georgina Melville)
Lucienne (Marta Mika)
Victorin (Adrian Strooper)
Count Albert (Ivan Turšić)
Orchester der Komischen Oper Berlin (conductor: Ainārs Rubiķis)
Chorsolisten der Komischen Oper Berlin (chorus master: David Cavelius)
Kinderchor Komischen Oper Berlin (chorus mistress: Dagmar Fiebach)
Dancers: Davide De Biasi, Kai Braithwaite, Danilo Brunetti, Michael Fernandez, Paul Gerritsen, Hunter Jaques, Silvano Marraffa, Daniel Ojeda, Lorenzo Soragni

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Cause for Celebration: Roxanna Panufnik on the Last Night of the Proms & commemorating the Centenary of Polish Independence - interview
  • The Sixteen at Christmas - The Little Child  at Cadogan Hall (★★★★) - concert review
  • A mash up of Gilbert & Sullivan and the Carry On films: Straus' The Pearls of Cleopatra at the Komische Oper, Berlin  (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Messiah in Berlin: Handel's oratorio staged in the Philharmonie (★★★★★) - music theatre review
  • A triumphal Messiah: Andrew Arthur and the Hanover Band at Kings Place  (★★★★★) - concert review
  • Towards the Global Jukebox - feature article
  • Echoes of Parsifal: songs and piano music by Robin Holloway on Delphian (★★★½) - CD review
  • Clarinettist dedications: Roeland Hendrikx in three contrasting concertos for clarinet (★★★½)  - CD review
  • Carols and more: Our annual Christmas disc round-up - CD review
  • Reviving Mozart in Wales & family connections in Milton Keynes: I chat to conductor Damian Iorio - my interview
  • Chocolate covered fairy-tale: Hänsel und Gretel at Covent Garden (★★★½) - opera review
  • Joyous discovery: Alessandro Scarlatti's Messa per il Santissimo Natale (★★★★)  - concert review
  • Powerful memorial: composer Andrew Smith on his Requiem dedicated to the victims of the 2011 Utøya massacre in Norway  - interview
  • Christmas in Leipzig: Solomon's Knot in Bach, Schelle & Kuhnau (★★★★) - concert review
  • Home

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