Opera is often perceived as difficult, an acquired taste. Modern, often discordant opera, can be particularly challenging.
Written in1920 Die Tote Stadt postdates Puccini’s later operas by only a couple of years and predates Alban Berg’s Woyzeck by a mere five years and is consequently very much thought of as a “modern” opera. Although there are very modern elements, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s masterpiece does not fall between two stools but sits very much on the one occupied by the great eighteenth-century Italian opera composers and with a pronounced nod to Richard Wagner.
It has all the ingredients of great eighteenth century opera and is, in fact, set in Bruges in the last decade of that century. It has a very strong story line, some beautiful music and a tenor part to die for. The only difficult thing about Die Tote Stadt is to know why it is not up there with Tosca, La Traviata, Tristan and Isolde and all the other great works that form the main canon of popular operas.
Die Tote Stadt is the story of a man’s obsession, his refusal to let go and his descent into madness. Paul’s beloved wife, Marie, is dead and unable to come to terms with his loss, he centres his life on the Temple of Memories, a shrine he has created containing various cherished items including a framed photograph and a long strand of her golden hair.
He then meets Marietta, a dancer, who bears such a striking resemblance to his dead wife that Paul believes she is in fact Marie and consequently his descent into madness accelerates.
The opening scene had some melodic tunes and fine singing by Marian Pop as Paul’s friend Frank and Rita Kapfhammer as his maid. Bulgarian soprano Iordanka Derilova sang beautifully as Marietta/Marie and the first act aria/duet, the exquisite, very Pucciniesque Glück das mir verblieb, was outstanding.
But it is to Paul that Die Tote Stadt very much belongs. The whole part, contrary to the rest of the piece, is very Wagnerian in feel and Daniel Frank has a superb tenor voice which was ideally suited. This was a virtuoso performance by a singer who ranks up there with the very best. He has power and passion but also a delicacy that was evident in his final-curtain reprise of Glück das mir verblieb.
Director Jakob Peters-Messer managed to bring out the drama and all the surreal elements of the dream sequence that constitutes the middle of the opera. We had nuns, priests, a child and lots of umbrellas. The central element was almost circus-like or 1920’s Berlin cabaret with decadent, dissident characters strutting their stuff. There were some excellent cameo performances from Irma Mihelič, Samantha Price, Eric Stokloßa, Modestas Sedlevičius and Nathan Haller but the scene-stealer was young Dutch dancer Nicole Van Den Berg who, with a shaved head and a man’s pin-striped suit, performed some extraordinary moves and came close to upstaging everyone when she was on.
The use of projections and the swirling gauze curtains worked brilliantly and all the décor and lighting by Guido Petzold and the multitude of, sometimes outrageous, costumes by Sven Bindseil added vital elements to the whole.
The Noord Nederlands Orkest under the baton of Anthony Hermus was excellent throughout, contributing to what was altogether a very special evening at the packed Zuiderstrandtheater in Den Haag. Michael Hasted 6th February 2019