City of Dreams

By Tanner, Michael | The Spectator, February 7, 2009 | Go to article overview

City of Dreams


Tanner, Michael, The Spectator


Die tote Stadt

Royal Opera House

The Queen of Spades

Barbican

At last, after 88 years, Erich Korngold's almost impressive opera Die tote Stadt has reached the UK in a handsome production, and in every respect the Royal Opera does it proud. If it isn't quite a major work that's because it vertiginously occupies a tiny gap between being incredibly derivative from the Strauss of Ariadne auf Naxos, and the sheer sickening over-ripeness and pretentiousness of Korngold's next operatic effort Das Wunder der Heliane. There are too many times when its predecessors are recalled, and some when one senses Korngold teetering on the brink of being the last word in the Schreker-Zemlinsky complex, with the gamey picking-over of themes of death, obsession and passion, excitedly intertwined with religiosity and violence.

As Antony Peattie says in his very shrewd assessment of the work in the latest edition of Kobbé, Korngold manages to have things both ways, by departing in this and many other respects from his source, the novel Bruges-la-morte by Georges Rodenbach: at least half the opera is a dream sequence, in which the central figure Paul, who is devoted only to mourning his dead love Marie, is assailed by a series of variously lurid incidents, which handily involve his encountering at close quarters a troupe of players, one of whom is a kind of male Zerbinetta; nuns in procession; Marietta, Marie's double, a dancer and flirt, spending a wild night with the seduced Paul; and Paul's subsequent revulsion and strangling of Marietta with Marie's hair, which he has preserved as a sacred relic. These oneiric fantasies take well over an hour, before Paul wakes and finds that nothing has happened.

His friend Frank urges him away from 'the dead city' Bruges, which is somehow identified with Marie, and Paul hesitantly leaves, after reprising the Big Tune from Act I which Marietta had derided for its sentimentality, but which we the audience adored and can't wait to hear again (please listen to Lotte Lehmann and Richard Tauber singing it, most easily found on a Naxos CD devoted to Tauber; it's one of the most swoon-inducing records ever made).

All this, needless to say, requires a huge orchestra, lots of motifs, squelchy side-slipping harmonies, and some amazing tableaux. It also requires a singer who can dance convincingly (further shades of Salome) and others who can cope with the heavy orchestral textures. At Covent Garden it gets the lot, and anyone who felt unconvinced need make no further effort to appreciate it. Nadja Michael, who last year disappointed me as Salome, is electrifying, though a creamier voice would be ideal, and one that stayed in tune: but her dancing and her hysterics are utterly convincing. …

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