Passion and drama in the most intimate of settings.
Given that it has only ever enjoyed one fully staged production in the United Kingdom, at the Royal Opera House in 2009, Korngold’s Die tote Stadt may not be an obvious choice for a smaller venue. However, since it already tackles Wagner to a greater extent than any other summer opera festival, it should come as no surprise that Longborough Festival Opera has been bold enough to schedule the work. If doing so might have been classed before the event as a gamble, it is one that has most certainly paid off.
The secret to the evening’s success may, in part, be the story itself. This is because a tale that is half played out in dreams, as a man mistakes a very much living dancer for his dead wife, offers an almost free hand regarding how it might be presented and explored. Carmen Jakobi’s new production, which was advertised in advance as a concert staging but in the event is fully fledged, exploits the venue’s intimacy to generate a highly charged and sometimes overwhelming experience. At the same time, by knowing what can feasibly work in the limited space, it does not try to do too much and shows a degree of restraint in exactly the right places.
Nate Gibson’s highly intelligent and atmospheric set portrays both Paul’s house for the indoor scenes, and the streets of Bruges for the outdoor ones. It exists on a variety of levels, with Paul’s bedroom, whose bed tellingly resembles a traditional psychiatrist’s couch, occupying the highest one on the left. The central platform could also pass for one of Bruges’ many bridges, with the smoke effects in Act II really suggesting the mist that hovers over the canals. On the right, the ‘Temple of the Past’ is filled with candles, and its walls covered with framed pictures of Marie, while its layout closely follows the description to be found in the original libretto. A series of empty frames also covers the set as a whole, thus offering a form of ‘interior decoration’ that is quite popular today and hinting at the ‘modernity’ of the opera’s messages when it first appeared a century ago.
The different levels are used to good effect, so that before Marietta enters Paul sings ‘Nur deiner harr ich, niemals Verlorene!’ from the highest one. She in turn performs ‘Glück das mir verblieb’ on the central platform. Paul is thus below her, meaning he gazes up to the ‘goddess’ who so entrances him while she sings, but at its end she comes down to meet him on the same level.
“The secret to the evening’s success may… be the story itself”
All of the performances are marked out by excellent singing and astutely observed characterisations, but Rachel Nicholls, who replaced a previously advertised Noa Danon as Marie and Marietta at relatively short notice, stands out in particular. Her soprano is both powerful and nuanced and the same could be said of her performance as a whole. Soon after her arrival she stamps out her character as an extrovert dancer who thinks nothing of donning a scarf at Paul’s request because she is used to posing, performing and playing a part. As the evening unfolds, however, we see many sides to this clearly multifaceted person so that her expression when Paul suggests she is nothing more to him than his dead wife is as unforgettable as it is actually understated. Then when she forgives him we sense it is not merely because she craves excitement, but for a whole range of deeper reasons relating to her own needs and desires.
Peter Auty gives a highly committed performance as Paul. His upper register may not always feel as strong as his lower, but both his singing and acting are extremely impassioned so that we truly connect with the rawness he feels following the death of his wife. The production is hardly X-rated, but it does not necessarily hold back in portraying the physicality of Paul and Marietta’s relationship in the dream, and with performers of the calibre of Auty and Nicholls the results are extremely compelling.
The carnivalesque aspects of the story are played out very well by, among others, Luci Briginshaw, Alexander Sprague and Lee David Bowen, who portray some of the members and associates of the opera company. Movement director Elaine Brown reveals how six people in a venue the size of Longborough can have just as much impact as a far greater number in a larger space, and the movement of all three women in the production is particularly skilful. At the same time, there are moments when things work for being pared down, with the supporting cast often only having to appear in hoods and masks for us to feel the chill and sense of intrigue.
The production also cleverly throws in lots of touches that audience members can choose to take or leave in terms of their significance. When Frank sees Marietta in passing in Act III he smiles, which on the surface reveals him being momentarily taken with the woman who Paul had described in so much detail. At the same time, however, it could represent the blurring of dream and reality by Frank actually smiling at the woman with whom (according to Paul in Act II) he is having an affair.
As Brigitta, Stephanie Windsor-Lewis, with her excellent mezzo-soprano, gives a convincing portrayal of a housekeeper who in the real world does her best to serve Paul in the face of his being difficult. Benson Wilson, with his secure and brilliant baritone, is outstanding as Frank and the moment he appears in Act II he feels a subtly different character in keeping with the altered way in which Paul perceives him in his dream. Wilson, of course, also plays the Pierrot Fritz, with his performance of ‘Da ihr befehlet, Königin’ being especially moving. In the pit, Justin Brown’s conducting proves to be as powerful as it is precise, with the balance he achieves across the forces as a whole helping to bring out every layer of intrigue that is to be found within Korngold’s enigmatic score.
• Longborough Festival Opera’s 2022 season continues until 2 August. For details of all of its productions and tickets visit its website.