*Die Tote Stadt,* March 21, 2021
I saw a production of *Die Tote Stadt* online on March 21, 2021. It was a performance from September 2018 from the Komische Oper in Berlin.
It’s an opera from 1920 by Erich Korngold, he wrote it when he was 23 and became the toast of Germany. He moved to the U.S. in 1934 at the request of director Max Reinhardt, Korngold wrote the score to his film *A Midsummer Night’s Dream.* He went on to become one of the most important and successful film composers, best known today for his score for the Errol Flynn movie *The Adventures of Robin Hood.* Korngold helped develop the concept of film music.
*Die Tote Stadt* is a spooky story, it made me think of *Vertigo* (which I love). It's the story of a young man (Paul, tenor) whose wife (Marie) recently died. When the opera opens he’s just seen a woman in the street who he thinks is the reincarnated spirit of Marie. She’s a dancer, Marietta. He’s invited her to his apartment. She shows up, she’s sort of creeped out by him, and doesn’t quite understand why she agreed to come but she’s so taken with herself that she basks in his devotion.
She sings a song for him, “Glück das mir verlieb,” the most famous number from the opera. It’s usually done as a soprano aria but in the context of the opera it’s a duet for the tenor and soprano. She leaves (she has to get to work, to the theater) and the first act ends with him getting a visit from his late wife’s spirit (played by the same singer as Marietta) who tells him first not to forget her, but then to move on with his life. The way director Robert Carsen handled this ghostly visit was a highlight of the production, he had the lights go down and Marie was represented by a black and white film projected along the back wall.
Paul follows Marietta to the theater, he’s put off by the people there, and he runs into his friend Frank, who tells him that he should forget about Marietta and go home to his dead wife, because he also has a thing of Marietta. Is she the only girl in town?
Paul has a sort of dream, where he pursues Marietta and eventually ends up with her. This sequence was gloriously staged by Carsen, it was a glittering, creepy vision. But the dream sequence went on a little too long, which is the fault of the opera (not the director).
The dream continues in Marietta’s apartment, where Paul and Marietta are having a post-coitus argument. She says some unkind things about him and his late wife, along the lines of, “How could she stand to be with you, you’re such a weirdo.” And Paul still fawns over her, the guy is damaged. Marietta decides to give him another try but insists on doing it back at his place, to banish the ghost of his wife.
The next scene opens with a solo scene for Marietta, in a sense speaking to Marie and looking for forgiveness. This scene featured an unseen children’s chorus, I didn’t quite understand what they were supposed to represent, but it felt like more proof that these people need some time on the couch. Paul has another ardent aria, which Carsen staged with multiple representations of the Blessed Virgin Mary being carried around the stage. Again, I didn’t quite understand it but I suppose it was effective.
Paul and Marietta try to get a handle on their situation. At one point Marietta finds a big hank of Marie’s hair that Paul has enshrined in a glass case. She takes it out of the case, throws it around, and wraps it around her neck so it mingles with her own hair. And Paul strangles her. Is this the new season of *American Horror Story*?
The synopsis I found on Wikipedia said that the opera ends with Paul waking up from his dream and being surprised that he hasn’t killed Marietta. In this production Marietta was dead on the floor and Paul’s transcendent resolution and reprise of “Glück das mir verlieb” was extra creepy.
The music gushes and surges, you can see why it was such a hit in 1920, It has the propulsive spirit of a young composer. But I could also see why it hasn’t really found a foothold in the standard repertory, unlike the operas of Richard Strauss, from the same period. It’s a little too kooky, the drama isn’t as tight as the best Strauss operas. A lot of the music sounded like Strauss rip-offs to me, but maybe that didn’t bother the audience at the time. You have to remember that new operas were common back then, I think often people just wanted to hear something new and weren’t so concerned about how original it was, or whether or not it would stand the test of time.
The leading singers were Aleš Briscein as Paul, Sara Jakubiak as Marietta/Marie, and Günter Papendell as Paul’s friend Frank. Conductor Ainārs Rubiķis had a sure feeling for the style and never let the orchestra cover the singers, which I imagine is a concern. Briscein has a bright voice that cut well through the thick texture, and he did some impressive, floaty crooning in the final scene, but I might ask for more pure beauty in the sound. Jonas Kaufmann did this opera in Munich when I was there to see *Lohengrin* in November 2019 and I wish I had seen that, too, I’m sure Kaufmann would have been a revelation in this role.
I had my eye on Jakubiak because she’s been getting press as a Korngold specialist. And I recently noticed that I had seen her in at the City Opera (*A Quiet Place*) back in 2010, so I was curious to hear what she sounds like now. She has the perfect voice for this music, it’s warm and colorful, even throughout its range, with a nice access to the top. And maybe equally important, she fully inhabited the role and didn’t shy away from the unattractive aspects of her character.
Günter Papendell had the other often-excerpted aria in the score, “Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen.” I wasn’t wild for his singing, it was a little too throaty for my taste, this is an aria that should have more of a gossamer quality and he was too earthbound.
My final thoughts: the production was very strong, the singers, director, and conductor made a strong case for the opera. I’m glad I saw it but definitely don’t need to see it again. The opera is streaming online for free until March 28, if you're interested: