Musicweb International
John Quinn
Die tote Stadt
Not long ago I reviewed a reissue of the first audio recording of Die tote Stadt. Strongly cast, with René Kollo and Carol Neblett in the lead roles, and very well conducted by Erich Leinsdorf, that 1975 RCA set represented the strongest possible recording debut for the opera. Since then, one or two video recordings have been released but I’ve missed them so I was very keen to see and hear this recent Bavarian State Opera performance.

It marks the operatic directing debut of Simon Stone. His production sets the action in the twentieth century. I’ll confess that initially I had my doubts about aspects of the production. Furthermore, I was unsure about Ralph Myers’ design work. The sets mainly consist of rooms in various apartments. These are suitably seedy, though it seemed to me that the designs rather missed the sense of oppressive decay that one got from the blue-and-black cover art on the Leinsdorf CD release. There is no obvious connection to Bruges; the opera could be set anywhere. I mention these reservations up front in case other viewers should share them, because I want to encourage anyone sharing my initial doubts to persevere. It wasn’t long before I was completely won over by the konzept. Yes, there are some fussy and/or obscure directorial gestures – why, for instance, is Marietta wheeled around, sitting in a supermarket cart, during the singing of Pierrot’s Lied? Another odd touch is that when Paul hands Marietta a lute, as per the libretto, before she sings ‘Glück, das mir verlieb’, what he gives her in fact is a microphone plugged into a TV set; the opening of the lute song thus appears to be a karaoke number! However, such jarring moments are mercifully rare.

As for Ralph Myers’ sets, I think they’re a triumphant success. The very anonymity of the twentieth century apartment rooms universalises the story. Even more effective is the use that’s made of the revolving stage. Not only does this enable the action to move seamlessly from one location to another – vital in what is, after all, a dream story – but the revolutions of the set play a part in other respects. For example, near the start of Act II, the way Paul walks in contrary motion to the revolving set brilliantly suggests his endless, restless tramping around the streets of Bruges. And what may seem like directorial conceits usually have their place, too. I was very dubious when I saw Marietta make her first entry, riding a bicycle up to the front door of Paul’s residence. All is revealed right at the end of Act III when, as part of the reveal that everything we have witnessed was Paul’s dream, we see her depart in exactly the same fashion. I do wonder if the Act II scene involving Marietta and her friends cavorting in a very energetic pursuit of pleasure isn’t a bit over-directed. On the other hand, though, it does bring home the decadent seediness of the group; so, on balance, I think it’s justified.

Overall, I think the production very successfully illuminates the music. And what music it is! I came away from watching this performance marvelling at the fact that one so young could write such highly charged music – Korngold was just 16 when he began to write the music and he was 23 when the opera premiered. It’s a tribute to the quality of this performance, of course, but the lengthy and volatile exchanges between Paul and Marietta in Act III, leading up to her murder have such a searing intensity – and an erotic element – that one would imagine the music to be the work of an older person, wiser in the ways of the world. Furthermore, I think I’m right in saying that the young Korngold had a hand in the writing of the libretto too, though in the booklet Juliane Luster, interviewing Simon Stone, states that the libretto was the work solely of Julius Korngold. From first bar to last Die tote Stadt is an astonishing achievement with its hugely taxing vocal parts and its magnificent orchestration, by turns ravishing and fierily dramatic. The present performance more than does justice to Erich Korngold’s invention.

So much of the opera hinges around the parts of Paul and Marietta/Marie that there’s a danger of overlooking the other members of the cast; so, let’s avoid that danger right now. There simply isn’t a weak link in the cast. The supporting roles of Juliette, Lucienne, Gaston, Victorin and Graf Albert are all very well taken. Each of these singers offers a vivid portrayal of outrageous, selfish, Bohemian characters; all of them act as well as they sing and they enter right into the spirit of the production. Andrzej Filończyk doubles up as Frank and Fritz. He does very well in both roles, though as a matter of personal preference I like to hear Pierrot’s Lied sung with a silkier tone. I think that Hermann Prey conveys the aching nostalgia of the music rather better on the Leinsdorf set. On the other hand, it seems that Filończyk better conveys the character’s menace. Jennifer Johnston is a fine Brigitta. The quality of her voice is excellent throughout and she also engages our sympathies for Paul’s housekeeper through her acting.

Inevitably, Jonas Kaufmann gets top billing but I found Marlis Petersen to be an absolute revelation. She sings marvellously throughout – the opening of ‘Glück, das mir verlieb’ is gorgeously done – and she’s undaunted by the huge demands of the tessitura and the test of stamina that the role imposes. It’s her singing – and acting – as the femme fatale which makes the deepest impression. When ‘Glück, das mir verlieb’ opens up into a rapturous duet she is a radiant partner for Kaufmann. In the next Act she is wholly convincing as the Good Time girl in the scene with her dancing troupe colleagues. In the extended scene with Paul at the end of Act II she first reproaches Paul bitterly and then tries, successfully, to seduce him again. The final confrontation between the two of them is searingly intense. Ms Petersen makes us sorry for Marietta, sympathising that Paul has let her down so badly. Then her jealous raging against the memory of Marie is spectacularly done, her singing and acting full of despairing venom. I should also say that when she appears as the dying Marie at the end of Act I, a passage that’s beautifully directed, she and Kaufmann make Marie’s last moments very moving. This is a memorable role(s) assumption by Marlis Petersen. Brava!

Judging by a press review of the production which is reproduced in the booklet, the opera was mounted – for the first time in 60 years in Munich – because Jonas Kaufmann was keen to take the role of Paul. His performance justifies the decision to go ahead. He’s ideally equipped for the role: he has the range and stamina to take such a taxing part. Furthermore, he is consistently required to exert himself physically throughout the production – as is Marlis Petersen; neither artist flags under the strain. Kaufmann’s singing is marvellous. We hear several examples of his refined quiet singing – his closing soliloquy at the end of the opera is magically done. But the part also requires a great deal of very full-on, emotionally charged singing from him, whether venting rage or expressing desperation, lust for Marietta or anguish at the loss of Marie. I was gripped by all aspects of his performance and impressed as much by his acting abilities as by his glorious voice. Who knows if he will ever essay this role again? His admirers will want to snap up this filmed performance while they can.

Besides the two principal singers, the performance is also a triumph for Kirill Petrenko. He conducts the score superbly, obtaining glorious and refined playing from the orchestra. Rightly, he gives full rein to the warmth and romantic expressiveness in the score – opportunities for rubato in the slow, lyrical passage are fully observed, yet never to excess – but he also impels the music forward in the many tumultuous episodes. It seemed to me not only that he has full command of the score – one would expect nothing less – but also that he really believes in the music. To date, I’ve only experienced Petrenko as a concert conductor; this was my first exposure to him leading an operatic performance and I was seriously impressed. I wonder if he might be tempted to perform Korngold’s symphony with the Berlin Philharmonic; on this evidence he’d make a fine job of it. Korngold’s wonderfully rich and inventive orchestration is splendidly realised by Petrenko and his players; the many imaginative nuances in the score make their mark. The chorus work – both by adults and children – is very well done.

This, then, is a compelling and all-round excellent account of Korngold’s operatic masterpiece. The opera house experience has translated very well to film; Myriam Hoyer’s video direction is assured. The Blu-ray disc gives excellent, crisp picture quality and very good sound. When I played the disc’s audio channel through my hi-fi system the sonic results were even better.

The booklet, which is in English and German, includes a useful synopsis, and an interesting conversation between Simon Stone and Juliane Luster, in which the director explains his approach to the opera and especially the psychological aspects.

Admirers of Korngold’s music should regard this as a mandatory purchase.

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