January 25, 2004
Deutsche Oper Berlin

Dreams and reality in a surreal world

Erich Wolfgang Korngold's rarely seen Tote Stadt at Deutschen Oper

Program

Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Die tote Stadt

Artists

Deutsche Oper Berlin
Conductor: Christian Thielemann
Director, Set Designer, Light: Philippe Arlaud
Costume Designer: Andrea Uhmann
Choreography: Anne Marie Gros
Chorus Master: Ulrich Paetzholdt

Paul: Stephen Gould
Marietta / Die Erscheinung Mariens: Silvana Dussmann
Frank: David Pittman-Jennings
Brigitta: Reinhild Runkel
Juliette: Fionnuala McCarthy
Lucienne: Ulrike Helzel
Gaston: Sebastian Heller
Victorin: Clemens Bieber
Fritz: Markus Brück
Graf Albert: Burkhard Ulrich

Soloists and ensemble of the ballet of the Stiftung Oper in Berlin

Leserbrief/readers comment Druckversion/printversion

Dreams and reality in a surreal world

Erich Wolfgang Korngold's rarely seen Tote Stadt at Deutschen Oper

by Nora Mansmann / translation: Andrej Huesener / photos: Bernd Uhlig

Die tote Stadt: zum Vergrößern klicken / click to enlarge

Erich Wolfgang Korngold, an Austrian composer of Jewish origin, was a celebrated child prodigy and published his first stage work at the age of 11. He later escaped from the Nazis, who denounced his music as "degenerate", and went to America where he composed film scores for Hollywood. Korngold went on to win two Oscars for his work in film, but was almost forgotten in Europe. Die tote Stadt remains his most popular opera. Korngold composed it at the age of 22 using a libretto written by his father. The opera received its premiere in a new production by Philippe Arlaud at Deutsche Oper Berlin on 25 January 2004.

And this is the story: Paul has moved to Bruges, the "dead city", to grieve for Marie, his dead wife. Having converted his house into a shrine for Marie, he encounters the dancing girl Marietta who closely resembles his dead wife. And so Paul is torn between Marietta who is alive and his dead wife Marie. In a dream sequence, Marie appears to him; at the end of the dream he kills Marietta. As Paul awakes, he finds Marietta alive, realises it was just a dream, and decides to leave the dead city and start a new life.

Die tote Stadt: zum Vergrößern klicken / click to enlarge

Philippe Arlaud not only directs the production, but is also responsible for stage and light design. He has created a dreamscape using aesthetics reminiscent of Murnau and Robert Wilson: Paul and his friend Frank are dressed in black suits with white made-up faces; the inhabitants of the dead city seem closer to death than life. Marietta - all in pink - and her dancing troupe, dressed in colourful costumes, act as a counterpoint. The dancing troupe is played by real-life artists and includes a tightrope walker who steals the show with her tricks during the overtures to the acts. Stage and costume design are hugely impressive: we are overwhelmed with colours and the sheer opulence of it all; however, it is not always clear why the production has to be so rich, or why we suddenly see dancing piglets. In other words, some ideas and costumes are inappropriate and rather silly, but despite the overburdening effects, the overall atmosphere strongly recalls the 1920s when the opera was written. We come to realise that the dead city is a metaphor for the time after World War I.

Die tote Stadt: zum Vergrößern klicken / click to enlarge

Korngold's music is at least as opulent as the stage design. The fusion of Wagner, Puccini and Strauss is just up Christian Thielemann's street. He conducted the orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin with verve and enthusiasm and rightly received the biggest ovation of the evening. No ovation for producer Philippe Arlaud, who jumped on stage embarrassingly often and at the end had to endure some jeers. Stephen Gould as Paul and Silvana Dussmann as Marie/Marietta are outstanding, their beautiful voices convincing and coping splendidly with the demands of this three-hour tour-de-force. The smaller parts (David Pittman-Jennings as Frank, Reinhild Runkel sings Birgitta) are also well cast.

Overall, the production can be overwhelmingly complex and demanding. Korngold's music may not have mass appeal, even though its late romanticism was rather old-fashioned even at the time of writing. However, if you are curious and willing to discover this interesting and rarely seen piece, then a visit to Deutsche Oper is recommended.



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