English National Opera – Korngold’s The Dead City – Rolf Romei, Allison Oakes, Sarah Connolly; directed by Annilese Miskimmon; conducted by Kirill Karabits


Die tote Stadt, Op.12 – Opera in three Acts to a libretto by the composer and his father based on the novel Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach [sung in Kelley Rourke’s English translation]

Paul – Rolf Romei
Marietta / Voice of Marie – Allison Oakes
Marie – Lauren Bridle [non-singing]
Frank / Fritz – Audun Iversen
Graf Albert – Hubert Francis
Brigitta – Sarah Connolly
Juliette – Rhian Lois
Lucienne – Clare Presland
Victorin – William Morgan
Gastone – Innocent Masuku

Chorus & Orchestra of English National Opera
Kirill Karabits

Annilese Miskimmon – Director
Miriam Buether – Set Designer
James Farncombe – Lighting Designer
Imogen Knight – Movement Director & Intimacy Coordinator [sic]
Nicky Gillibrand – Costume Designer

Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers

Reviewed: 28 March, 2023
Venue: The Coliseum, London

When it was premiered in 1920, Korngold’s The Dead City (Die tote Stadt) must have struck its first audiences as a daring and raw confrontation of the theme of grief, so soon after the end of World War One. Moreover, Paul’s psychologically unhealthy obsession with his deceased wife Marie’s remaining effects (such as her braid of hair, shawl, and other items of attire) surely registered as all the more acerbic in Catholic dominated Cologne (one of the places of its dual premiere alongside Hamburg) and in those other culturally Catholic cities in Germany and Austria (such as the composer’s native Vienna) where the opera was subsequently staged, given that Christian denomination’s memorialising of saints and their earthly relics in religious practice. It will also be remembered that Catholic Bruges is the home of the basilica that holds the relic of the supposed holy blood.

Annilese Miskimmon’s new production for English National Opera starts out conventionally and tamely enough in the era of the work’s composition, in what superficially appears to be a tidy drawing room, as Paul’s shrine to Marie. But on closer examination the clues are there as to his unbalanced psychological relationship to her and those physical remnants, the latter mounted in glass cases like museum pieces, including the braid installed over the mantelpiece, suspended like a rope or, worse, a snake; and his armchair obsessively facing what is presumably Marie’s deathbed, which is actually a hospital bed rather than an ordinary domestic furnishing, albeit made up with red satin duvet and pillows.

His housekeeper, Brigitta’s dowdy appearance, and Sarah Connolly’s slightly shrill singing suggest a rather disapproving demeanour towards Paul’s habit of maintaining his shrine, and his friend Frank is here a clergyman, the interpretation of both characters perhaps suggesting Paul’s as yet unresolved relationship with matriarchal and patriarchal authority which, in part, lies at the root of his subsequent hallucination that enables him to work through his trauma. Miskimmon’s presentation of that illusion is provocative but dramaturgically constructive, sparked off by the appearance of Allison Oakes’s sturdy, sassy Marietta, who gives a steely rendition of the character’s famous song – serving in the drama as a nostalgic act of memory, but here delivered forcefully, without sentimentality. Paul’s hallucination then proceeds not exactly either as an enactment of any scenario from Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable which Marietta’s opera company colleagues are in town to perform nor in the handed-down traditions of the commedia dell’arte as implied by Fritz’s taking on the role of Pierrot in Korngold’s original. Rather, it emerges as a louche, neurotic admixture of a lewd ‘nurses and doctors’ fancy dress party (presumably irreverently picking up from Marie’s dying hours in hospital) with a funeral procession led by a bishop and various clergy, and continuing with a line of nuns and a substantial cross-section of society, all dressed in black – one or two of whom bizarrely carry a balloon, as though it were carnival – wending its way in a dusky and hazy, dream-like opening beyond Paul’s claustrophobic shrine.

Seeing as the drama is set in Belgium, this visual surrealism might well recall the art of René Magritte. As an idea this throwing together of the Freudian theme of Paul’s sexual and religious or moral hang-ups may seem a crude juxtaposition. But it is carried off as very effective theatre and tellingly sustains that dichotomy between emotional and religious guilt, leading to a movingly cathartic resolution as Paul’s hallucination recedes and the story comes full circle as Marietta quickly leaves the room (as she had before his vision started) but Paul is now psychologically liberated to move on from his grief and the ‘dead city’ of Bruges.

Rolf Romei sings with a certain litheness, but there is strain and some breaks in his higher vocal range, perhaps because of having recently been unwell, as announced before the performance. Allison Oakes’s Marietta remains uncompromisingly direct and powerful throughout but achieves a more ethereal quality in the evidently recorded sequences as the voice of the dead Marie (projected from off-stage) who is enacted in a ghostly form at eerily apposite moments by Lauren Bridle. Audun Iversen embodies a vocally reassuring and comforting Frank, but then succeeds in the same register in sounding sly and insinuating as Fritz in Paul’s vision, when he makes overtures to Marietta, inciting Paul’s anxious jealousy.

Kirill Karabits maintains masterly control as the music nervously shuffles about among various instruments and sections of the orchestra, especially in the opening Act, under a prevailing mood of melancholy. He elicits more extrovert strands of colour and excitability from the ENO Orchestra in the subsequent sections, like Richard Strauss in texture, but with Korngold’s own distinct melodic voice. While attending to a wealth of detail, Karabits keeps sight of the larger structure of each Act and doesn’t give way to excess, preserving the essentially intimate vision of the drama overall as stemming from Paul’s perspective.

This is an unsentimental but incisive and stimulating interpretation of the opera, being given only its third professional staging in the UK. Even if the libretto in this English version rarely rises above the ordinary, the work is revealed as a complex but rewarding one that should be seen more often.

Further performances to April 8

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