The Times, August 4 2021
Geoff Brown
Jonas Kaufmann: Die tote Stadt review — the full kaleidoscope of human emotion on show
Jonas Kaufmann takes on the role of harried and disorientated widower Paul
Hashish and marijuana rolled into one: that’s how the Austrian opera expert Marcel Prawy once described the principal aria in Korngold’s Die tote Stadt, the turbulent and luscious creation that had its premiere in Vienna in 1920 when its “wunderkind” composer had reached the heights of 23. Korngold’s music, in whatever setting, always resembles some kind of drug, although its potency here is at least tripled by the story the opera tells: one of obsessive love, grief and murder, sourced from a Belgian symbolist novel of 1892 with pre-echoes of Hitchcock’s film Vertigo.

Staging the opera persuasively isn’t easy, as proved by an old DVD of a hideous production from the Strasbourg Opera House. But this time, in a 2019 staging from Munich: wow! Half of its lustre derives from the uniformly excellent cast, led by Jonas Kaufmann as the harried and disorientated widower Paul, who can’t move beyond the loss of his late wife. In his hands the character is neurotic and noble, unsympathetic one minute, touchingly bruised the next. Here is the full human kaleidoscope, etched in every agonised cry from Kaufmann’s deepening tenor voice.

Acting and singing become even more fused in Marlis Petersen’s astonishingly vivid performance as Marietta, the wife lookalike and good-time girl who gets invited into Paul’s home, bed and inner being. Clearly loving every note of the teeming score, Kirill Petrenko does a magnificent job conducting the BayerischesStaatsorchester, balancing Korngold’s marzipan opulence with glimpses into the heart of darkness hidden within.

Simon Stone’s production, first seen in Basel in 2016, completes the triumph by sending us spinning through soulless if colourful modular units that may not conjure up the novelist Georges Rodenbach’s “dead city” of Bruges, but certainly drive and clarify the drama as characters, sets, reality and dream intermingle on the Munich theatre’s revolving stage.

Note, too, the rare flow and subtlety of Myriam Hoyer’s video direction, which never lets a spattering of close-ups muddy the bigger picture. And she ends on a most happy inspiration as Kaufmann’s character finally finds peace: a close-up of Petrenko’s hands, closing off the orchestra’s tender last chord. (Bayerische Staatsoper (DVD)

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