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The Dead City

by on 26 March 2023

Death in Bruges

The Dead City (Die tote Stadt)

by Erich Korngold, libretto by Paul Schott

English National Opera at the London Coliseum until 8th April

Review by Patrick Shorrock

It is always wonderful to see an opera company operating at the height of its powers.  This new production of Korngold’s Die tote Stadt from ENO blazes with the conviction that this opera deserves the very best an opera company can give it.  This brilliant production – both musically and theatrically – is very much proof that ENO is not an opera company on its last legs, despite its brutal treatment (and temporary reprieve) by the Arts Council. 

The music is gorgeous in a luscious early 20th century kind of way: nothing atonal to frighten the horses, although it does rather sprawl, with the musical interest being in more in the glittering orchestral detail than the vocal parts.  But then there is the plot.  Paul (tenor Rolf Romei) has failed to recover from the death of his young wife five years ago, but is now becoming obsessed with a dancer who looks like her (soprano Allison Oakes).  When she fails to come up to his specifications, he strangles her with the hair of his dead wife, which he has kept as a relic, only for her to turn up the next morning to collect her umbrella – which she had left behind at their last encounter – as though nothing had happened.  Paul realises that it was all a fantasy and takes the first steps to recovery from bereavement by deciding to leave Bruges and its gloomy fogs. 

The opera shares a common source with Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Georges Rodenbach’s novel Bruges-la-morte.  (No, I hadn’t heard of it either.) This also features a man unsuccessfully trying to turn a woman into his previous lover on the ground that there is a physical resemblance between them; the idea that the women might have needs of their own is never actually considered.  However, the resemblance to Vertigo is not entirely helpful, as Hitchcock’s film is rather more obviously a masterpiece and Bernard Herrmann’s music is much more emotionally compelling than Korngold’s, despite Korngold’s later success as a film composer. 

This isn’t perhaps entirely Korngold’s fault.  He was only nineteen when he wrote this opera, an age when even a prodigy like Mozart was still producing lesser works like La Finta Giardiniera rather than early masterpieces like Idomeneo.   I do wonder just what drew him to this subject matter at such a young age.  (As if Freudians don’t already have enough to get their teeth into here: Korngold’s father was responsible for the libretto!)  Korngold junior’s music, while diverting and interesting, is very generalised somehow.  It fails to depict what is going on in the characters’ heads, let alone to make the audience to identify with them.  It doesn’t have the distinctiveness of, say, Richard Strauss or instantly compel the attention in the way that truly great operas do.

The piece is certainly given the best possible chance to shine here.  Kirill Karabits gets the orchestra to play beautifully, even if a more driven approach might have been more effective.  The two lead roles are ferociously demanding, exposing every weakness in a singer’s vocal armoury.  Rolf Romei’s Paul holds his own against a tumultuous orchestra with no apparent effort and impressive sweetness of tone.  There is an occasional sense of caution, but this was the only sign that he was not in good health, despite the announcement before curtain up.   Allison Oakes is equally impressive as Marietta rising fully to the Wagnerian demands of this role without any harshness or wobble.  These are two singers I would love to hear again. 

Annilese Miskimmon’s production does as good a job as can be done with this particular scenario, displaying a theatrical verve that never spills over into excessive distraction and keeps the action in the fantasy sequences as clear and coherent as is possible in a dream that doesn’t make a lot of sense.  She is well supported by Miriam Buether’s set and James Farncombe’s atmospheric lighting, which enable Paul’s flat to transform sensationally, as Paul’s fantasies take grip.  The back wall is removed to expose the fogs of Bruges and then the roof comes off, as Marietta descends on one of the chandeliers.  The chorus sing splendidly and are very much part of the action when they need to be – often in slow moving processions – inventively costumed by Nicky Gillibrand.  Sarah Connolly as the housekeeper Brigitta, and Audun Iversen as Paul’s friend are luxury casting, with other roles well taken by Hubert Francis, Rhian Lois, Innocent Masuku, William Morgan, and Clare Presland. 

Those who haven’t seen this opera before should seize the opportunity, as they are unlikely to see it done this well in a long time.  But I can’t help feeling a slight sense of disappointment that weren’t given the chance to see Korngold’s Das Wunde der Heliane (more musically interesting but utterly bonkers) or perhaps some of Richard Strauss’s later operas.

Patrick Shorrock, March 2023

Photography by Helen Murray

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