Die tote Stadt, opera by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, on a libretto by Paul Schott, pseudonym of Julius Korngold, the father of Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Based on the novel Das tote Brügge (Bruges-la-morte, 1892; German translation: 1903) by Georges Rodenbach (1855–1898). The opera premiered with great success on 4 December 1920, simultaneously in the Hamburg City Theatre and in the Köln City Theatre. Attended performance in Enschede, The Dutch Reisopera, 8 December 2018.
Marietta: Iordanka Derilova
Frank: Marian Pop
Brigitta: Rita Kapfhammer
Juliette: Irma Mihelič
Lucienne: Samantha Price
Victorin: Eric Stokloßa
Fritz: Modestas Sedlevicius
Graf Albert: Nathan Haller
Gaston: Nicole van den Berg
Conductor: Antony Hermus
Orchestra: Noord Nederlands Orkest
Choir: Consensus Vocalis
Staging: Jakob Peters-Messer
Paul’s wife, Marie, is dead. Frank advises him to put his life back together, but Paul is not one to get over his grief easily. In Bruges, he has met the vivacious dancer, Marietta, whom Paul’s muddled mind sees as Marie 2.0.
Paul is torn between his loyalty to dead Marie and his living interest in Marietta. The second act is devoted to the visions Paul is having, now he’s completely lost his marbles. In the third act, Paul and Marietta are living together, with all the accompanying arguments which get so out of hand that Paul ends up strangling Marietta. However… That was just a dream, and Marietta is not dead, she’s alive! This is all too much for Paul. Together with his friend, Frank, he swears to start a new life and leave Bruges, the ‘city of death’.
Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt has been back for years now, having been out of fashion for even more years. In Germany alone, there were performances in 2018 in Dresden, Berlin, Hamburg and Kassel. In our opinion, this is just right. It’s a lovely opera, with amazing and moving music: a varied meal with a main course featuring Strauss and Puccini, accompaniments from the cuisine of Lehar (!), Wagner and Mahler and a pinch of Schönberg dissonance.
The performance we saw in Enschede is a co-production with the Theater Magdeburg, where the opera premiered almost three years ago. The libretto of Die Tote Stadt, based loosely on the novel Bruges-la-mort by Georges Rodenbach, is by ‘Paul Schott’, a pseudonym of the composer’s father.
Errors in libretto rectified by Herr Opera Director
Director Jakob Peters-Messer is unhappy with Daddy Korngold’s libretto and quite simply omits a crucial scene when it doesn’t suit his purpose: at the end of the opera, Marietta, who returns to pick up her lost umbrella, is merely ‘edited out’ (which of course leads to bizarre, incomprehensible texts) because Peters-Messer has decided that Marietta is already dead by then. Quod non. In the abbreviated description above, it says that Paul loses his mind at the death of his wife. Wrong! Apparently, Paul was abused as a child by a Roman Catholic paedophile, and Peters-Messer is the only one who knows about it. There is no justification to be found anywhere in the libretto for this idiocy and the resulting disturbing images with a half-naked boy. We must of course remember that this production is three years old; if the libretto were to have been put through Herr Opera Director’s mangle in 2018, it would undoubtedly have become a #metoo drama. And the reconciliatory ending of the opera is obviously also completely out of place in 2018. So here too, the director took firm action on behalf of the enlightened hipsters of today. The libretto says that in the end, Paul wants a second chance at life. Frank: “Ich reise wieder ab. Sag, willst du mit mir? Fort aus der Stadt des Totes?”, to which Paul answers, “Ich wills, ich wills versuchen”. But in Enschede, the police, tipped off by their colleagues in Bruges, are waiting for Paul. Because in fact, Paul did not only murder Marietta in his dream, as the libretto says, but in real life too!
“I cannot believe that an act of violence, such as dreamt here, could lead to healing”, declared the director, who apparently assumes that opera audiences will be interested in what he can or cannot believe, or in some psychological messing around which essentially mutilates the original work of art. I genuinely don’t understand, and for once your reviewer is deadly serious, that someone would dare to disfigure an opera for that reason (“My Concept!”). It’s nothing less than barbarism. And demagoguery, given that there will be few Reisopera audience members who are so well-acquainted with this Korngold opera that they recognise the ego-maniacal botchery. The actual libretto is also glossed over in the programme book, in the description of its content. I have to say however, in all honesty, that the rest of Peters-Messers direction was not bad at all, with some lovely staging (second act) and functional, but effective, use of video projection.
The Swedish tenor, Daniel Frank (Paul) was a pop musician for 10 years, before he saw the operatic light. He is a sensationally good singer (listen to his aria “Glück, das mir verblieb“) with a sharply-focused and impressive vocal sound. Powerful when required, but filled with human weakness and doubt when his role demands more lyricism. The role of Paul is enormously challenging, an exhausting number of high notes, and Daniel Frank’s performance was world class. We were deeply impressed by this ex-rocker. Kammersängerin Iordanka Derilova performed the equally challenging role of the bitchy, trollopy Marietta (Marietta’s Song), also full of high notes, with verve. Her high dramatic soprano seemed at first to be just what the doctor ordered but when the volume button appeared to get stuck on 9 (there was a little movement towards the 10 now and then, but not at all towards the 8), it eventually became slightly irritating. Nonetheless: a big complement for the casting. Rita Kapfhammer’s voluminous, dark mezzo soprano voice made for a great Brigitta. Incidentally, Kapfhammer (here in Messa di Requiem) also has a remarkable prior history. She was destined to become a hotel manager in her family’s hotel. However, the leader of the local church choir had other plans for Rita and sent her to the Musikhochschule in Munich. Rita was already a virtuoso in the Stubenmuzik (zithers and dulcimer; watch!) so it’s just a small step from that to Korngold. Kapfhammer comes from Franken in Upper Bavaria. Franken is wine growing land and her favourite wine is Frankische Silvaner. It’s the best CV you could imagine.
Antony Hermus’ sensitive interpretation and musical instinct for detail drew a colourful and transparent sound from the Noord Nederlands Orkest: it glowed and glittered. Beautiful. As though the Noord Nederlands Orkest had never played anything other than Korngold. It remains a mystery to me why one conductor is world-famous and another unheard of. As with singers, quality plays only a partial role. Although Hermus does indeed have a very nice international career, particularly in Germany, people will not immediately see him as a successor to Gatti and ‘Hermus’ is not a global brand. The immensely overestimated Dudamel and Scapino Ballet conductor Barbara Hannigan are. ‘Hipness’ is the magic word here. Once more, with emphasis: bravissimo Antony Hermus!
The fact that the Reisopera once again flops with the direction, following the ridiculous Tosca, is worrying. Where have the days of the excellent director Laurence Dale gone! We think back with pleasure on top Reisopera productions such as the phenomenal Ariadne auf Naxos in 2016 and one of the best Butterfly productions ever staged in the Netherlands in 2015; no coincidence that both of these were directed by the no-nonsense Laurence Dale. Is the Reisopera to become an organisation for which only one thing counts: ‘innovation’? Innovation for innovation’s sake, always on the look-out for ‘pioneering, disruptive and urgent music theatre’, trying to keep up with the big boys at the Regietheater. In our opinion, ‘innovation’ (the need for which is overestimated) should be looked for far more in the development of advanced audio-visual resources. If we can bring Callas back to life in a hologram, there are huge opportunities for a spectacular future for opera to be found in technical fields. At any rate, more opportunities than in the psychological urges of the latest in a line of dreadful concept generators.
Despite the failures in direction, Die Tote Stadt by the Reisopera is an exciting production which brings great operatic joy.
Olivier Keegel (published on 10 December)