Die Tote Stadt, Royal Opera, January 2009

This opera by Erich Wolfgang Korngold had its first performance in 1920 when he was only 23 years old. It’s a remarkably mature work, with a libretto by his father, under the pseudonym of Paul Schott. A man named Paul has been widowed and descends into a compulsive obsession with his dead wife, Marie. A new woman, Marietta — a spitting image of Marie — enters his life and pulls him into a vortex of desire from which he tries to escape by murdering her, thereby recreating the death. This so appals him that he breaks out of his depression, and then realises that the whole affair has been a dream.

In this imaginative production by Willy Decker, Paul was strongly sung by Stephen Gould, and Marie/Marietta by Nadja Michael, whom I last saw as Salome a year ago. She did a superb job of the part, teasingly sexy, both as girlfriend and among her acting troupe, and he was a solidly boring man, depressed and out of his depth in a world of passion. His friend Frank, who doubles as Fritz the actor, was ably portrayed by Gerald Finley, and his housekeeper Brigitte by Kathleen Wilkinson. The production was always engaging, and the religious procession in the background during one part of Act III was very cleverly done, showing the power of religious imagery, yet at the same time keeping it half-lit in the background. The lighting designer, Wolfgang Göbbel did a fine job here, as did the designer Wolfgang Gussman.

The music is richly melodic, as befits one of the last great Romantic composers, but it never grabbed me, despite an excellent performance under the baton of Ingo Metzmacher. It portrays breathless drama without a let-up, and seems to lack the necessary variation to sustain a three-act opera. It owes debts to both Puccini and Richard Strauss, and I came out at the end with a melody from Elektra running through my mind. Korngold wrote five operas, this being the third, but ended his career writing music for movies in Hollywood, a far cry from his early life. He was born in 1897 in Brno, and was a child prodigy who had a ballet performed in Vienna when he was only 11. In 1934 he went to work in Hollywood, and between 1935 and 1938 lived a transatlantic life between America and Vienna. When the Germans annexed Austria in 1938 and the Nazis confiscated his possessions, he remained in Hollywood until his death in 1957.

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