Followers of the Austrian composer Erich Korngold must be exultant that, after nearly 90 years, Die tote Stadt has finally received its UK premiere. For the rest of us, it’s a welcome alternative to the umpteen Figaros, Bohèmes and Magic Flutes that are trotted out on an annual basis.
Korngold was an early developer and a late arriver. With two operas already under his belt, he wrote this adaptation of the symbolist novel Bruges-la-Morte, between the ages of 19 and 23. But it’s taken a lifetime to reach the London stage, coming hot on the heels of the premiere of his next opera Das Wunder der Heliane, which received a concert performance at the Southbank some 18 months ago. This proves much more deserving of a production than the later, flimsier and over-earnest opus.
The production Die tote Stadt now gets has, like so many “new” productions nowadays, been hawked around various cities (it was seen in Salzburg five years ago and has since appeared in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Vienna and San Francisco). The work, in the hands of German director Willy Decker and his regular collaborators Wolfgangs Gussman (design) and Göbbel (lights), could scarcely have received a more stylish and committed treatment.
Decker is one of the most exciting visual directors around (when are we going to see his beautiful Peter Grimes revived?), and this opera gives him plenty of scope to go to town. The town in question is Bruges but a brooding haunted one, not one of pretty canals and flower-decked houses. This is a dead city of the mind, cloaked in black, with windows into often nightmarish compartments of the psyche.
The use of an inner stage, perfectly reflecting the main area, is inspired. When it first looms from behind a gauze wall like a ghostly echo, the impact is huge. It’s an illusory vision; you almost can’t tell what you’re seeing and the box within a box serves as a potent image for this exploration of inner and outer worlds.
Act 2 is an extended dream sequence, running well into the third act and so taking up a good half of the opera. Walls and ceilings slouch, houses waltz and strange, strange visions hover, as the central character Paul, obsessively mourning his dead wife, goes on a gruelling psychological journey.
After a slightly lumpy start on the first night, American tenor Stephen Gould soon got into his stride and attacked the role with impressive vigour. It’s a long and demanding part, matched by Nadja Michael’s double role of Marie (the dead wife) and her live counterpart, Marietta. Although vocally uneven, she is extraordinary physically: bald-headed for much of the time, androgynous and almost vampiric, an exceedingly strange representative of the living.
By comparison, Gerald Finley’s role is small (even with Frank and Fritz the pierrot doubled) but he brings characteristic presence, compelling interest whenever he’s onstage, and with the famous Pierrotlied beautifully sung. Kathleen Wilkinson is a sympathetic Brigitta, the faithful housekeeper who, in Paul’s disturbed imagination, floats across the stage strapped to a huge crucifix. It’s just one of many arresting images.
Ingo Metzmacher, in his Royal Opera debut, draws every ounce of feeling from Korngold’s extravagant score. It’ll be too much for some; as with Heliane, it sounds much of the time like an unrelenting climax, with full-on singing and orchestration, veers dangerously close to the saccharine, and in the central act at least seems driven by hysteria. But its passion and commitment are undeniable.
This premiere has provoked a much-needed buzz in the press, with the virtues or otherwise of this neglected composer in full debate. The opera and production are bound to split audiences but, if you’re prepared to be seduced by Korngold and Decker’s visions, you are in for a colourful and often exhilarating ride.
BBC Radio 3 will broadcast Die tote Stadt on Saturday 23 May 2009.