Showing posts with label Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Show all posts

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

Alive and dizzying: Die tote Stadt in Munich


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 roles are huge - long, loud, high and very physical - and the orchestral writing is full of complexities and unusual instruments. Some productions have made radical cuts - I saw one that wholly omitted the sole choral scene, the religious procession early in act 3, no doubt saving ££££s - but Petrenko has gone full whack and does every note. This is the three-act version, too: in some, acts 1 and 2 are run straight through, again with the loss of a certain amount of music. I heard passages, notably in Paul's duet with Marie's ghost, that I don't think I've actually encountered before.

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
More seriously, when everything does keep still, it becomes clear that Marie has died of cancer; she appears in her hospital gown, bald from chemotherapy, weak and fading in Paul's arms. The preserved hair is her wig. This makes act I the most emotionally harrowing section of the opera (certainly for me - both my parents and my sister died of cancer, the latter aged only 45, and she had a wig  - so I found this evening extremely close to the bone). That's difficult, because you need to keep something in reserve for the end; this time it comes almost as relief, rather than catharsis.

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.





Sunday, August 18, 2019

Korngoldarama at Bard Summerscape

My report from my trip to the Korngold and his World festival at Bard Summerscape is now up at The Arts Desk, so here is a taster and a few more photos.




There could be no greater gift to any festival director than Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Where the exploration of his life, times and contemporaries are concerned, this composer is a veritable Spaghetti Junction for different strands of genre, development and fates. 


One of the most remarkable child prodigy composers in history, Korngold was the son of the music critic Julius Korngold. He studied with Zemlinsky (on Mahler’s advice) and enjoyed a meteoric rise to fame; his opera Die tote Stadt, premiered when he was 20, was a smash hit in the 1920s. Desperation to escape his father’s monstrous control-freakery also led him to work for some years in operetta. 

The stage is set for our symposium
With the Nazis’ rise to power he was fortunate, being Jewish, to move to Hollywood; he later credited Warner Brothers with saving his life and those of his family. He wrote relatively few film scores, but won two Oscars and was largely responsible for creating the sound that was long considered typical “film music” - the truth, of course, is not that Korngold sounds like film music, but that film music sounds like Korngold. In 1950, though, he attempted a comeback in Vienna, only to find that not only was his presence an unwelcome reminder of a shameful past era, but that his style was considered an anachronism. 

JD with Michael Haas, author of Forbidden Music,
creator of Decca's Entartete Musik series and
fellow panellist at the festival

He died aged only 60 in Hollywood, believing himself forgotten. In the past few decades, changing times and evolving attitudes have allowed his distinctive voice with its emotional and melodic largesse to be fully appreciated on its own terms - often for the first time.

The Fisher Center at Bard, designed by Frank Gehry
Mix together the child prodigy years, the melting pot of influences; the splices of the serious and the ‘light’; the fading 19thcentury and horrifying development of the 20th; and the worlds of Mahler’s Vienna, 1940s Hollywood and shattered post-war Europe. There’s enough material to keep any festival going for probably a year...


A treasured souvenir - thank you to Michael Sirotta!

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Korngold dream sequence...


Guys, guys...wait...what.....



So, here we go. Jonas Kaufmann is singing the role of Paul in Korngold's Die tote Stadt at the Bavarian State Opera, starting on 18 November. And Kirill Petrenko is conducting, and Marlis Petersen is Marietta and if the announcement on Twitter hadn't been accompanied by a slightly worrying cartoon, I'd have fallen off the proverbial chair. One has of course been hoping for years that Kaufmann might do this. (One might even have mentioned such a hope when interviewing him five years ago, just in case - if he was already thinking about it by then, the cards were not revealed.) But gosh, I hope I'm not dreaming.

This video introducing the production suggests that director Simon Stone could well do it proud. (And indeed - update - a Die tote Stadt fan on Twitter tells me he has attended Stone's production in Basel and that it was "the best I've ever seen".) "We must go through the dark times so that we can see the light again," Stone says. "That's what's so great about the piece." Kaufmann meanwhile points out that the work contains just about everything that happened in opera between 1850 and 1950, which makes it "pretty difficult".


This opera, with its extended dream sequence, has in the past been an occasional magnet for 'dirctoritis': I've never quite recovered from witnessing Olaf Bär having to sing the Pierrot Tanzlied dressed in a black basque, angel wings and high heels. It's a work with a lot of heart and a lot of heartbreak; it carries a strong message about love and loss that was all too pertinent in the wake of World War I when the opera was premiered. That was, I'm convinced, one reason for its extreme popularity in the inter-war years - though its generous, atmospheric score and powerhouse roles for the lead singers might just explain something too. 

Speaking of dreams, yesterday I logged on to the Deutsche Oper Berlin site to see if they were doing their hugely successful production of Korngold's Das Wunder der Heliane again, and it suggested to me that they were, in late April and early May, and I even checked T's calendar to see if he'd be free to go and see any of the performances together, and he wasn't. Then I checked back later - only to find it had completely disappeared. Dream sequence again (or just last year's website)? At least that production is due out on DVD in May. Pre-ordering is available, even if tickets are not. 

Meanwhile in the US, the whole of the Bard Festival is built around Korngold this summer. Not least among the treats on offer will be the US staged premiere of Das Wunder der Heliane, conducted by the marvellous Leon Botstein. The festival also contains a concert performance of Die tote Stadt, a rare performance of the Piano Concerto for Left Hand, the Piano Quintet, the Symphony in F sharp, the Passover Psalm and much, much more. Music by Korngold's contemporaries, peers and mentors sets the context, spanning the worlds from Heliane to Hollywood with much in between.

Korngold now has what he has needed the most: top-level international advocacy. With Leon Botstein at Bard, Kaufmann, Petersen and Petrenko in Munich and Christoph Loy in charge of Heliane in Berlin, there's no doubt about the take-up, the appeal and the power. But there's only one thing missing: a real presence in the UK's opera world. One staged production of Die tote Stadt has come to Covent Garden, ever, many years ago. And that was that - which is frankly nuts. Perhaps Korngold is perceived as too European for one lot of Brits and too American for the others. It's time this changed. Thxbi >books plane to Munich<. 



Monday, July 10, 2017

Golden sounds from a painful world



This is a big Erich Wolfgang Korngold year, marking both the 120th anniversary of the composer's birth and the 60th of his death. Not that you'd know it from anyone's programming around here. But Michael Haas, director of research at the Jewish Music Institute's International Centre of Suppressed Music at Royal Holloway College, has just written a valuable article about Das Wunder der Heliane, the composer's fourth, largest and most controversial opera. (Read it here.)

Premiered in 1927, Heliane is a strange, mystical, dystopian tale of redemption through love. Our hero is a nameless Stranger who has been jailed for attempting to bring love to a loveless realm. Our heroine is Queen Heliane, the sole named character, wife of the cruel and apparently impotent Ruler. Heliane and the Stranger fall in love...

Ten years ago the opera received its only UK performance to date, in concert. It didn't go well. The Royal Festival Hall platform was too small to accommodate both the vast orchestra and all the vocal soloists, so the singers were placed in the choir above and behind the orchestra, but the less-than-ideal demands this created seemed challenging for all concerned. It was a pity, to say the least, because I was at the rehearsals and it sounded a great deal better. Those at the performance weren't to know that, though. The opera celebrates the sanctity of sexual consummation between people who really love one another, something you'd think would scarcely raise hackles. Yet one critic condemned the work for being blasphemous (yes, really) and dismissed it as "Entartete Musik": a nefarious Nazi-coined term that Korngold himself would have known all too well.



It's slightly sad to observe that the British, in tribal musical-taste terms, appear to have problems with Korngold that don't apply quite as universally elsewhere. In other countries his third opera, Die tote Stadt has become standard repertoire. In the UK, it has once more vanished into obscurity after one short run at Covent Garden. As for Heliane, it basically doesn't stand a chance in Brexit Island. Yet with wonderful irony, Haas points out some strong similarities between the scenarios of this opera and a recent UK smash hit: George Benjamin's Written on Skin.

I became interested in Korngold so long ago that I didn't know you weren't meant to like him. Back then, indeed, hardly anyone in this country had heard of him. One of my teachers - American - played me part of Die tote Stadt when I was about 19. I was hooked at once. A year later, deciding on a dissertation topic at Cambridge, I came across the LP of the Erich Leinsdorf recording on a table in Dr Derrick Puffett's rooms and mentioned my enthusiasm to him. Dr Puffett - who was one of the most acute and positively terrifying musical intellectuals in the faculty - encouraged me to go ahead with a study of the piece and offered to be my supervisor for it.

Some years later I had the chance to write a short biography of a 20th-century composer and suggested Korngold because I was fascinated by his life story. A child prodigy in Mahler's Vienna. His appalling relationship with his father - what composer could be unlucky enough to be the son of a powerful critic? The rise of the Nazis; the controversies his father caused; the split in musical style of the times. The escape to Hollywood; Warner Brothers, Errol Flynn, Bette Davis; and the attempted, but hopeless, return to Vienna. What a life. What an emblem of the 20th century.

One didn't imagine things could get worse still for Korngold's reputation after all that. But I can't begin to tell you about the quantity of flak I've taken over the years simply for liking this composer's generous-spirited and lavishly beautiful music and finding his story worth telling.

Not all music is for everyone. Composers' voices speak to us, or don't. There are some unfortunate souls who don't like Brahms. There are a few very popular composers to whose music I'm fairly allergic; some whose language I have grown into and come to love with the years (notably Bartók and Boulez); others, like Monteverdi, who stand out like Mount Ararat amid flatlands of other stuff that possibly is considered more interesting than it really is. It isn't a matter of life or death if you don't happen to get along with a particular compositional personality.

But I do think you need to pause for thought, now and then, and look at where our cultural conditioning comes from and, to some degree, how our tastes might be formed.

Another example: I'm still struck by the ease with which some dismiss Mendelssohn as glib, shallow and too happy. His apparent ease of style came from obsessive hard work and continual revision; as for too happy, he worked himself first into the ground and then into a premature grave. Those criticisms were actually deliberate anti-Semitic slurs promulgated against him as the Nazis attempted to poison public opinion over the most popular violin concerto in Germany, prior to banning it. Yet their "arguments" can still sometimes be heard in concert hall foyers, repeated almost as if by rote. Evidence of Mendelssohn's working patterns, his life and intellectual breadth of knowledge, his emotional state, and so forth, all go against such a judgement. But few stop to consider what they're saying and why.

Korngold had the luck to find himself exiled in Hollywood, rather than being murdered in a concentration camp after Hitler's Anschluss, which would almost certainly have befallen him had he been in Vienna on 12 March 1938. Nevertheless, his world was destroyed, his colleagues killed or ruined and his career in Europe torn to shreds; and his family and friends who survived did so by the skin of their teeth. Because he did survive, because he was therefore one of the "lucky" ones, his story is generally portrayed as one of good fortune. But having your life, livelihood and reputation shattered by racism, dictatorship and war is, if you think about it enough, not very "lucky" at all. Korngold died too young - 60 - and it's clear that his death was hastened by the stress resulting from his historical fate.

The hideous situation faced by those in such a position - any refugees and oppressed peoples, born in the wrong place at the wrong time - is still brushed aside by the millions of more fortunate majority-population individuals who have no clue what others have been through, yet who are themselves no different except by virtue of luck.

It appears that even today we can't cope with the fact that Korngold landed up in Hollywood, even though that was the only way he and his family could survive the destruction of their own world and make ends meet in a new one. The ugly fashion of today's ugly world is to bash refugees. It's still happening to Korngold.

Fortunately, though, there are people who love his music. Many are actual musicians. Many of them are violinists who fall in love with the concerto and related pieces. Here's Nicky Benedetti and friends:



Heliane is being performed several times in Europe this year and next. The Volksoper in Vienna has already done it, about six months ago, and now those eager to see it can go to:

Freiburg, concert performance on 22 July
Flanders Opera, Antwerp and Ghent, 15 September - 10 October;
Deutsche Oper, Berlin, March 2018 (starring Sara Jakubiak and Brian Jagde)

Maybe see you there.


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Wednesday, July 22, 2015

What killed Erich Wolfgang Korngold?

The manuscript of 'Gold', Korngold's cantata written in childhood and shown to Mahler
Michael Haas, author of the book Forbidden Music - about the generation of Jewish composers murdered, obliterated or exiled by the Nazis - was curator at the Jewish Museum in Vienna of a fabulous exhibition about Julius and Erich Wolfgang Korngold several years ago. He has now posted on forbiddenmusic.org a very substantial essay entitled The False Myths and True Genius of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, lavishly illustrated with both visual and aural material.

It is wonderfully written and the story emerges powerfully with all its complex, baffling and ultimately tragic elements in sharp relief. Did Korngold die too young because of the stress caused by his own sense of "irrelevance"?

Do give it a read. And a listen.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Anniversary joy: Korngold plays Korngold



It's Korngold's birthday (118) and how better to celebrate than listening to him play his own music? This is the 'Pierrot Tanzlied' from his most popular opera, Die tote Stadt, recorded in 1951 during the composer's optimistic yet short-lived attempt to return to Vienna after more than a decade of exile in Hollywood. He makes the piano sound like a couple of full orchestras. Enjoy.