Interest in Korngold grows apace. His superb film scores (2 Oscars) have made people keen about Erich Wolfgang, 1897 – 1957. His middle name was lived up to, for he was one of the most precocious composers ever. He had a triumphant childhood, adolescence and young manhood in Vienna but was hounded out of Germany and Austria by the Nazis, moved to America where he became a star cinema composer in Hollywood. Mahler, Strauss, Furtwängler, Šibelius and Puccini proclaimed his exceptional qualities, he had a ballet produced at the Vienna Opera when he was still in short pants, Schnabel played a Piano Sonata K had composed when he was thirteen, he was made a professor at the Vienna State Academy and his operas were performed all over the German speaking countries and beyond. In 1920 Die Tote Stadt was premiered simultaneously in Cologne and Hamburg, in Vienna a month later. It was about time that Covent Garden let us see and hear that opera and the British première arrived on January 27.
I prepared for that premiere by listening three times to a CD of the work and I confess to being underwhelmed. The music is, to my taste, unfocused, brilliantly written for the orchestra but altogether too loud too much of the time and with vocal writing that keeps the singers straining at the top of their range, Korngold continually makes Straussian gestures but they lack the melodic potency of the older master and they do not show the same love that Strauss had for the human voice. But on the stage, in an exceptionally fine production, the story is told with the stage know-how of a master.
The story is very much of its time, a time when Europe was still lamenting the mass killing of millions of men so that remembrance of the dead was in many people’s mind (Conan Doyle and all that cult). Die Tote Stadt is about Paul still grieving obsessively for his wife Marie, conserving her memory with portraits of her, even a plaid of her hair. One day, however in the dead city of Bruges (get the connection?) he sees a (dead) ringer of that wife. She is called Marietta, a dancer who might perhaps be cast as Odile; is she immoral because she wants to enslave every man or is she a child of nature? Paul’s grief gives way to infatuation. Paul’s best friend is Frank but he becomes a rival, for he seems also to be having it off with Marietta, she casting sexual favours to all-comers, including a certain Count/Pierrot of a harlequinade (shades of Ariadne auf Naxos). Paul alternates between having his cake and going hungry with grief. All this with the back ground of Bruges and it’s religious processions. Eventually Marietta goes too far in taunting Paul and desecrating the shrine he has created, he strangles her with Marie’s plaid of hair. All a bit sick really. And no catharsis in the music when the whole thing turns out to be a dream. Frank and Paul are friends again and plan to leave the dead city. And Marietta pops in to collect her brolly and some roses she left behind. Quiet ending.
The evening was a triumph of artistry. The production by Willy Decker (from Salzburg and Vienna) was perfect, completely non-concept, entirely at the service of and with respect for the work, imaginative and mind-blowing, totally satisfying, a great evening in the opera-house. Equally commendable was the singing and acting all round. It is Paul’s show and the American tenor, Stephen Gould, was a star, coping with the high tessitura and its jagged line, also living the part. As did also the German singer, Nadja Michael as an utterly convincing Marietta (occasionally doubling as the shade of Marie), delighting in the 1920 costumes and revealing a personality and allure that was captivating. The only quality that would have lifted enjoyment even higher would have been the sort of vocal charisma that earlier singers had, like Maria Jeritza and Richard Tauber in the Twenties. Crowning the evening was the debut in the Royal Opera House of the conductor Ingo Metzmacher; no praise is too high for his handling of the score and our orchestra.
The story was originally a novel called Bruges-la-morte by Georges Rodenbach and the opera libretto was by the composer himself, with the helping hand – only revealed in 1975 – of his father, Julius who, as a feared Viennese music critic, sensibly wished to remain anonymous, fearing that his reputation might harm his son’s. When Die Tote Stadt had its premiere Korngold was twenty three years of age.
Max Reinhardt got Korngold to Hollywood to write extra music for his film ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ (Mickey Rooney the best Puck ever) and the composer was able to stay on. The Sea Hawk, The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex and Robin Hood (Errol Flynn at his best) brought forth wonderful scores from Korngold. He also produced concert works; in 1945 the luscious, high sugar content Violin Concerto (Heifetz’ recording is tops) and the 1951 Symphony in F sharp minor, which I consider a great work, worthy to be spoken of as a successor to Mahler’s Tenth.