Opera + Classical Music Reviews

The Dead City review: ENO pulls out all the stops for Korngold’s enigmatic masterpiece

25 March 2023

A brilliantly conceived staging allied to some extraordinary playing justifies English National Opera’s decision to exhume this operatic rarity.

The Dead City

The Dead City (Photo: Helen Murray)

Like Mozart before him, Erich Korngold was a child prodigy. Born in 1897, and encouraged by his father to compose from an early age, he was feted by such musical giants as Gustav Mahler and Richard Strauss, before going on to study composition under Alexander von Zemlinsky. Keen to ensure his son’s musical idiom continued in a post-Wagnerian vein, his father shielded him from the influence of the likes of Schönberg, Berg and Webern. The second Viennese School was going to have no part in Korngold’s musical development – which is evident in almost every bar of Korngold’s operatic masterpiece, Die tote Stadt (The Dead City). Written when he was still in his early twenties, to a libretto by himself and his father, but under the pseudonym of Paul Schott, this strange, hallucinatory work caused a sensation when it premiered simultaneously in Cologne and Hamburg in 1920. Productions followed in most of the major opera houses in Germany, and Korngold became a household name.

That, however, was all going to change when Hitler came to power, due to Korngold’s Jewish ancestry. He moved to America with his family, where he remained until his death in 1957. Musical tastes changed, and Korngold’s music – with its plush, late-Romantic sensibilities – found more favour with the movie industry than in opera houses and concert halls. It wasn’t until Decca’s pioneering ‘Entartete Musik’ series of recordings in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, which explored the music of composers banned by the Nazis, did Korngold’s operatic and concert works, alongside those by Schreker and Schulhoff, become readily available to a wider audience.

Whilst opera houses in Germany quickly began exploring these neglected works for the stage, Die tote Stadt didn’t make it to one of the London houses until 2009, when The Royal Opera presented Willy Decker’s much travelled staging. We’ve had to wait 14 years to see it again, here ambitiously staged by ENO in an eminently singable translation by Kelley Rourke. It’s a strange, enigmatic work that operates across many levels – is what we’re seeing real, or a figment of the fevered imagination of Paul, the recently bereaved protagonist?

“…this strange, hallucinatory work caused a sensation when it premiered…”

The Dead City

Allison Oakes & Rolf Romei (Photo: Helen Murray)

ENO’s artistic director Annilese Miskimmon’s superlative new staging, in Miriam Buether’s handsome designs that faithfully recreate a 1920s’ apartment, gets to the heart of the matter and tells the story lucidly, and clearly. The plot’s complicated, so it’s testament to her directorial skills that as a spectator one never gets lost or confused. The show is unexpectedly lavish, and packed with plenty of theatrical surprises and enthralling stage pictures that enchant throughout the evening.

The two main roles, Paul and Marie/Marietta, require singers with Wagnerian credentials and the heft to cut through Korngold’s dense orchestration. A pre-performance announcement was made on behalf of tenor Rolf Romei as he had been ill in the days leading up to the first night, but would sing anyway. Paul is a killer of a role, as not only is he on stage for the entire evening but Korngold’s vocal writing is merciless, requiring a singer of immense staying power. For the most part Romei delivered the goods, but it was evident that many of the high-lying passages were a struggle, and one sensed that his voice was simply not ‘speaking’ as intended. This was a shame, but once he’s restored to full vocal health the results should be spectacular.

Similarly Allison Oakes (Marietta/Marie) took a while to warm up and get into her stride. There’s plenty of metal in the voice, but to begin with there was a harshness to her tone. By the final act, her singing had come into focus – her top notes rang out thrillingly, but there was more warmth and pliancy to her phrasing. There was strong support from Audun Iversen (Franz/Fritz) and Sarah Connolly (Brigitta) while the singing of the chorus, and that of the Finchley Children’s Music Group was full-blooded.

The main revelation of the evening was Kirill Karabits’ stylish conducting. He caught all the post-Wagnerian splendour of the score, and secured faultless playing from the orchestra. The players evidently relished the chance to revel in its rich harmonies and exuberant scoring. And balance between stage and pit was nigh on faultless – no mean feat given Korngold’s dense orchestration.

Opportunities to see The Dead City are few and far between – especially in this country – so hats off to ENO for giving UK audiences the chance to experience this strange, beguiling work. Catch it while you can.

• Details of future performances can be found here.

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The Dead City review: ENO pulls out all the stops for Korngold’s enigmatic masterpiece