The Royal Opera – Die tote Stadt [Torsten Kerl as Paul]

Korngold
Die tote Stadt – Opera in three acts to a libretto by Paul Schott [Julius & Erich Wolfgang Korngold] after the novel Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach [sung in German with English surtitles]

Brigitta – Kathleen Wilkinson
Frank / Fritz – Gerald Finley
Paul – Torsten Kerl
Marie / Marietta – Nadja Michael
Victorin / Voice of Gaston – Steven Ebel
Juliette – Simona Mihai
Lucienne – Jurgita Adamonyte
Graf Albert – Ji-Min Park
Gaston – Adrien Mastrosimone
Paul’s double – Barry Callan

The Royal Opera Chorus

The Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Ingo Metzmacher

Willy Decker – Director
Karin Voykowitsch – Associate Director
Wolfgang Gussmann – Designs
Wolfgang Göbbel – Lighting design


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 5 February, 2009
Venue: The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

Torsten Kerl as Paul. ©Bill CooperAlthough the music of Erich Wolfgang Korngold has come from the cold this past quarter-century, his operas have become known (at least outside of German-speaking territories) through recordings and the occasional concert performance rather than through being staged. This production of “Die tote Stadt”, the composer’s most successful and enduring opera, was first seen at the Salzburg Festival four years ago and has since travelled to other several cities on both sides of the Atlantic. As a production, it ably reflects the various strengths and also failings of the work both dramatically and musically.

With its starkly drawn polarity of ‘good’ and ‘evil’, Georges Rodenbach’s novel “Bruges-la-Morte” is no less typical of European fin de siècle than the libretto fashioned from it by the composer and his overbearing father Julius (both working under the pseudonym of Paul Schott). The scenario (astutely summarised by Alex Campbell in his review of the first night) is outwardly similar in both cases, though the novel’s emphasis on environment is inevitably replaced by the psychological in the opera – and it is this defining aspect that Willy Decker has taken to its relative extreme in his production.

This means there is little attempt (literal or otherwise) to represent Bruges, whose claustrophobic insularity is instead reduced to the confines of the main character’s apartment – suitably dominated by a portrait (intentionally pre-Raphaelite in style?) of his deceased wife and decked-out with further such remembrances. This ensures that what follows has an emotional grounding which holds good for the ongoing shifts between reality and fantasy; one where Decker overcomes a number of well-worn visual clichés (the oblique overhanging canopy and soft-focus objects to name but two) to suggest a psychological ‘middle-ground’ timeless in its subjectivity yet also emblematic of a post- (First World) war culture in terminal decline. A production that Karin Voykowitsch has helped transfer convincingly to the Royal Opera House stage, abetted by the user-friendly Surrealism of Wolfgang Gussmann – the ‘Pierrot’ scene in Act Two exudes a veritable ‘whiter shade of pale’ – and inventive lighting of Wolfgang Göbbel. Conversely, there has been little attempt to ‘choreograph’ the production (no movement director is listed), ostensibly leaving the singers to their own devices – with distinctly mixed results.

In the case of Paul, Torsten Kerl (in the first of his two performances in this run, otherwise it is Stephen Gould in this role) can do little except stagger around the stage in anguish or collapse on it prostrate. Which is arguably as much as his predicament warrants, save that text and music suggest a more equivocal characterisation than is evident here. Kerl handles the highly-wrought tessitura with conviction, but his vibrato can coarsen under pressure and the sheer intensity of his portrayal right from the outset leaves little room for intensification as the opera takes its course – for all that his leave-taking has the right degree of transcendence.

Contrast this with the Marie/Marietta of Nadja Michael – whose acting, dancing and overall visual allure could not be more apposite to the role. Vocally, however, things frequently go awry – a consequence, perhaps, of Michael having made the unusual career decision to switch from mezzo-soprano to soprano. This leads to a sensation that the vocal line is being sung below what is written, with passages where the voice opens-out in volume or expression often undermined by pitching which is at best approximate. Something Michael will need to consider before taking on further roles in the post-Wagnerian domain.

There can be no real reservations about the remaining two roles of note. As Frank, Gerald Finley is a model of the part-consoling, part-admonitory friend who is both appreciative yet despairing of Paul’s wilful intransigence; while his assumption of Fritz endows this emotionally vacuous charlatan with a surprising nobility. A quality such as the Brigitta of Kathleen Wilkinson possesses in abundance – her concern as to her master’s emotional (latterly moral!) wellbeing expressed in terms that confirm a more rounded persona than either Rodenbach’s novel or aspects of Decker’s staging might suggest.

Otherwise, it is the playing of the Royal Opera House Orchestra that is the enduring attraction here, guided by Ingo Metzmacher with a grasp of the Korngold idiom – elusive despite (or because of?) its accessibility – which could hardly be improved upon. The element of Straussian overkill, while never overlooked, is enriched with a Puccinian eloquence as well as a Debussy-like luminosity that ensure a greater expressive range than the composer had arguably achieved at this point. Moreover, there was little or no sense of the voices being overwhelmed, the orchestra maintaining clarity during even the most densely scored passages. The ROH Orchestra has produced some world-class playing over recent years and its showing here ranks with its finest. Hopefully Metzmacher will be invited back soon, and if that were to mean an opera by Schreker or Zemlinsky then so much the better.

Mention of those two composers, with the all-round scope and depth of their finest stage-works, is perhaps the most productive way to underline the relative limitations of “Die tote Stadt” – for all its appeal of subject-matter and attractions of content: an opera which demonstrates an effortless command of style without seeking, or perhaps knowing how to attain something more personal. Put another way, it stands as a “La finta giardiniera” for its era – but Korngold, whose precocity arguably outstrips that of Mozart, was not to make the quantum leap needed in order to write his “Idomeneo”.

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