Royal Opera House
27 January - 17 February 2009
For too long, Erich Korngold has been shoved into a box marked “Film composers (opera composer failed)”. With the UK premiere of his best opera Die tote Stadt taking place at the Royal Opera House this month, we have a chance to re-evaluate the Austrian composer’s oeuvre as living theatre.
Adherents of Korngold (often dubbed “Korngoldistas”) will be exultant that, after nearly 90 years, the opera’s time has finally come. Mind you, let’s not be parochial about it – the work has been seen in Europe long before now. Willy Decker’s stunning production, which now arrives at the Royal Opera House, has itself swung around European opera houses (as well as popping over to San Francisco) for several years now.
And it’s looking good in this revival by Karin Voykowitsch. Decker is one of the most visually exciting directors working internationally today. His Peter Grimes and Duke Bluebeard’s Castle/Erwartung double bill at the ROH were both wondrous to behold. Working this time with set designer Wolfgang Gussmann and lighting designer Wolfgang Göbbel, he has produced a series of thrilling stage pictures. Their use of an inner stage, which reflects the main action before swinging forward to engulf the downstage area, is inspired.
If it all looks good – and there’s certainly some surprising imagery along the way – what of the work itself? With rich Pucciniesque/Straussian overtones, Korngold is renowned for his lushly romantic scoring that veers towards the sentimental. 18 months ago, we got to hear his later opera Das Wunder die Heliane in a concert performance on the South Bank, where it less than impressed some listeners. Die tote Stadt is a stronger work, with some genuinely lovely music, not least the well-known Lute Song and the Pierrot Lied, the latter beautifully performed here by the Canadian baritone Gerald Finley.
If there’s a weakness in the work, it’s in a libretto (based on the symbolist novel Bruge-la-Morte) which relies on a “then I woke up and it had all been a dream” device. Set in Bruges, it is not a town of pretty canals and flower-decked houses, but a dead city of the mind, cloaked in black, with windows into often nightmarish compartments of the psyche.
The performances are strong, with a sterling heldentenor in Stephen Gould’s Paul, who shows enormous stamina as he hardly leaves the stage. Nadja Michael’s Marie/Marietta is more problematic. Physically, she’s amazing, lithe, bald-headed and vampiric, but there’s a lot of unevenness in the voice, which is often less than beautiful.
New music specialist Ingo Metzmacher makes his Royal Opera debut conducting the score with vigour and incisiveness, without allowing the schmaltz to swallow the drama. Whether or not you’re a Korngold follower, this is a welcome change from the usual operatic fare. Both the work and the production deserve to stay around for some time to come.
- Simon Thomas