|We've got a revolve and we're gonna use it...|
Marietta (Petersen) and Paul (Kaufmann) hold on for dear life
All photos from the Bavarian State Opera website: https://www.staatsoper.de
I'm just back from an unexpected dash to Munich to see Korngold's Die tote Stadt at the Bavarian State Opera. It's always a little daunting when dreams come true; sometimes you imagine they can only disappoint and will be best avoided, which is not the least reason I hadn't got my act together about this sooner. But when a kind friend in the cast wrote to me out of the blue saying she could get me a ticket, I decided to drop everything, use my air miles and run.
Die tote Stadt was the topic of my dissertation at university, which is where my Korngold book really began to germinate. Back then - the 1980s - you'd say the name "Korngold" and nobody had heard of him; worse, though, if they had, they would give a scornful laugh because he wrote, oh dearie dearie dear, film music. I never expected to see this opera on stage at all.
Its remarkable rehabilitation over the past 25-30 years has happened despite the army of nay-sayers, some of whom still like to damn Korngold with entartete Musik terminology that could almost be out of the Goebbels playbook; the fact that the performances are getting better and better and the standing of the artists involved increasing every time suggests those dogs have maybe had their day. (The final frontier is the UK, where it surfaced once at Covent Garden around 08, only to vanish again.)
|Marietta (Petersen) drives Paul (Kaufmann) up the wall|
Now the opera has been championed by Kirill Petrenko, the extraordinary conductor who has been music director of the Bayerisches Staatsoper for a good while and now has the Berlin Philharmonic as well. The cast is led by Jonas Kaufmann as Paul and Marlis Petersen as Marietta. I remember rejoicing, on hearing Kaufmann's first solo CD of Strauss Lieder in 2006, that here was the perfect German romantic tenor to sing Korngold's leads, if only he would be persuaded. That was 13 years ago - but it seems I wasn't wrong.
A fresh view of an old favourite after a long time is always illuminating - especially when a piece is so expertly performed that you know you are responding to the work itself and not its misapprehension by its performers. This opera functions at such high intensity, right the way through, that you can feel afterwards as if you've been hit by a juggernaut. I can see why I fell madly in love with it when I was 20: emotionally speaking, this music is for young people, reflecting Korngold's own age and stage at the time. He began work on it while serving as musical director of his regiment in World War I; upon its simultaneous premiere in Hamburg and Cologne in 1920, he was 23. Already an established superstar after a meteoric beginning as child prodigy par excellence, he wrote the lead roles for no lesser singers than Richard Tauber and Maria Jeritza, and assumed his orchestra would be so good that they'd be able to do absolutely anything.
|Marietta (Petersen) taunts Paul (Kaufmann) with Marie's wig...|
What is not young about it, though, is the libretto itself - and here's a whole new strand for me to explore, because when I studied the piece I looked at what the libretto does with its sources (Georges Rodenbach's Bruges la Morte and the play based upon it by Siegfried Trebitsch), but not exactly who did what, or why. "Paul Schott" was a pseudonym for the Korngolds père et fils, Julius and Erich, and of those two, Julius was the one who worked with words. It is easy to think, looking at some of his reviews (he was music critic of the Neue freie Presse, hence the most powerful in Vienna) and his unpleasant and unhinged-sounding letters to his gifted son, that Julius was simply crazy. He was, however, a very fine writer. His German is far from easy reading, but lucid translations in the relevant books, notably by Michael Haas and Brendan Carroll, show that his literary worth ran high and justifies his place and influence - even though he sometimes used these to somewhat malign ends.
Erich was a natural composer, but less so a wordsmith. He penned reams of funny and charming doggerel for his friends and family (the Exil.arte Centre in Vienna has in its collection a recording of him reading one of these verses), but when it comes to long descriptions of a religious procession through the centre of Bruges, or an all-out "domestic" between Paul and Marietta (has there ever been such a row in any other opera?) or an overtly Freudian psychological process and extended dream driving the action - that has surely to be the hand of Julius. I am now wondering - and do not begin to know - what was driving him.
Here's is the gist of the story. Paul lives in Bruges, surrounded by medieval streets, ancient canals, the atmospheric nunnery named the Beguinerhof - all dark, shadowy repression. His wife, Marie, has died; he can't move on. He has created a shrine to her memory and in his mind the dead city of Bruges fuses with the dead woman into one strange, dominating presence. He is supported by his devoted housekeeper, Brigitta, and his one friend, Frank. Then he meets Marietta: a dancer who is the physical double of Marie, but her polar opposite in personality, all sparkle and sensuality. The virgin/whore complex of the Rodenbach original becomes, in Korngold, the battle for life against death. Paul has a dream - which takes up all of act 2 and most of act 3 - in which he sees calamity ensue when he attempts a relationship with Marietta, and in which he finally strangles her with a lock of Marie's hair. At the end he awakens to realise the danger of his state of mind. Marietta comes back to fetch her umbrella, but he lets her go. Frank persuades him to leave Bruges at last.
|Trolleyed: Marietta (Petersen) and Fritz the Pierrot (Filonczyk)|
The production by Simon Stone was restaged by Maria-Magdalena Kwaschik from its original home in Basel, and it leaves you dizzy. There is a syndrome in opera staging that often ensues when a director is lucky enough to secure the use of a "revolve". This means the stage can spin. This feature is technically very complicated and costs a bomb. Therefore it is put to work at every available second. "We've got a revolve and we're gonna use it!" My spies tell me it's not only the audience that risks seasickness. Nevertheless, it's effective in the dream sequence at creating the bizarre, unpredictable atmosphere Paul's nightmare requires. Doors open startlingly into walls; you're never quite sure where you are; Frank takes an open-air shower on the roof; Fritz, the Pierrot, pushes Marietta around in a shopping trolley (I watched with some anxiety as it rolled free towards the edge of the stage); and in the procession Paul's house is taken over by children (his and Marie's?) helping themselves to cereal and jumping up and down on the bed, before the chorus itself is delivered in a circle on the move.
|Paul (Kaufmann) and the pillow fight|
Biggest complaint, though, is that in this opera the "dead city" of Bruges is a character itself - we meet it time and again in the orchestral textures and in particular in the extended orchestral sequence that opens act 2, a truly filmic canvas unfurling the glimmering waters, the dark church towers, the tolling bells, the medieval lanes, in sound alone. But as Bruges is a character - fused with Marie - the could-be-anywhere modern apartments of the very detailed design (by Ralph Myers) slightly miss the point, unless it be that the soul of this place is somewhat dead.
The performers' characterisation and dramatic sense is fabulous. As Paul, Kaufmann is haunted and harrowed, but imperious and determined, taken to offloading laundry and cardboard boxes onto Brigitta and Frank by simply tossing them across the room. In act 2 he is straight out of a film noire, in raincoat and angled hat, casting well-placed shadows; in act 3 bewildered, desperate and goaded beyond his limits. Paul is anything but an appealing and likeable character, yet Kaufmann kept us with him through his sheer sense of disorientation and the genuineness of his lost love; when he sings the final Lute Song over a beer while burning Marie's wig and his own tie, we are grateful that Paul will recover at last. (In one other production at least, he shoots himself, which after all that intensity is a really miserable way to end the piece.)
Singing? Kaufmann - often heard elsewhere as if pacing himself and keeping heft in reserve - this time lets rip from the start. There's a Wagnerian, Siegfried-like steely edge to the tone, and a rock-solid technical strength; but tender moments, when they arrive, melt like chocolate fondue. As Marietta and Marie, Marlis Petersen could quite possibly out-Marietta Jeritza herself. She's a vivid actress, switching astoundingly between charismatic dancer and dying cancer victim both in presentation and in vocal tone. Her role is as high and loud as Paul's and her silvery tone matches the glitter of her silver dress; she brings the character a megawatt personality who nevertheless is not above pinging Paul's braces to make her point. When she triumphs in the act 2 showdown, seducing Paul into a submission as wholehearted as his earlier fury, it is no wonder she wins. There's a particularly nice touch at the end when Marietta, having come back for her umbrella, once more forgets to take it with her. Will she come back? Is this story over? We wonder...
Mezzo Jennifer Johnston is an ideal Brigitta, with warm, shining tone and deeply sympathetic characterisation: for once we can take Brigitta at face value as housekeeper and, later, a nun. The story is complicated enough without trying to turn her into something she isn't (as some productions do). Andrzej Filonczyk as Frank and Fritz is a wonderful discovery, a golden-centred baritone whose rendering of the Pierrot lied was a highlight of the performance. Together the four principals make a close-knit and convincing ensemble. Fine supporting performances from Mirjam Mesak and Corinna Scheurle as pole-dancing Lucienne and Juliette, and Manuel Günther and Dean Power as the men in their act 2 lives.
But the ultimate stars of the evening were the orchestra and Petrenko, creating an Aladdin's cave of detail, with supremely intelligent pacing and control, high-stepping élan and excellent balance (it would be easy for the orchestra to overwhelm the singers; they didn't). It is no easy feat to sustain such intensity with such clarity, and to unfurl the drama of this rich-textured orchestral sound without allowing it to be obscured by its own weight. (Watch The Sea Hawk; listen to Korngold's own conducting of his own music on the soundtrack. It's there to be tapped into, if you want to know how he needs to sound.) This music is a cake that has to be baked at a high temperature - the worst thing to do is let it be soggy, and I've heard more soggy Korngold performances in my time than I'd care to count. It totally kills him. He really needs to be performed almost as if he's Beethoven - taken on his own terms, with that degree of nobility, heroism and sincerity - and these qualities are in short supply in our world. Petrenko found the very soul of Die tote Stadt and I'm deeply grateful to him.
Would I fall in love with this opera now, in my fifties, as much as I did at 20? I wonder. I'll never know. But I do know I'll probably never hear it performed as well as this again. A little bird hints that there might be a DVD (at least I saw tell-tale cameras in action on Sunday), which is seriously good news. Several more performances remain before Christmas and it'll be back on stage in the Munich Opera Festival in July.