Die tote Stadt - Wiener Staatsoper, 2 May 2008
Die Korngolds - Jüdisches Museum Wien
To Vienna for Willy Decker's production of Korngold's Die tote Stadt, first seen at the 2004 Salzburg Festival, and shortly to be shipped over to the Royal Opera House in 2009 - amazingly the UK debut for this nearly 90 year old masterpiece.
I prepped myself with an afternoon at the Jewish Museum's Korngolds exhibition, which looks at Erich Korngold's career with a particular emphasis on his father Julius's influence/interference/involvement, hence the plural title. There are photographs, manuscripts and a few artifacts in the museum's tiny rooms (pic left is the Hollywood section), but the music is the real draw. A wide selection is available to listen to, including some fascinating obscurities amongst the better known opera and film music.
The exhibition ends on 18 May, but a catalogue is available (price 22€), in German with English translation. Attached is a 16 track CD, also available separately (12€), which includes this 1952 recording of Elizabeth Schwarzkopf singing Glück das mir verblieb from Die tote Stadt:
Die tote Stadt is centred round an extended dream sequence which makes Paul, obsessed by memories of his dead wife Marie and wanting to believe she has been reincarnated as the dancer Marietta, finally realise that he needs to leave the past behind and move on with his life.
The production is designed around a simple uncluttered set, a room in Paul's house, just walls, chairs and a giant portrait of Marie (actually the blown-up face from John Singer Sargent's portrait of Miss Elsie Palmer, left).
As Paul falls asleep, the back wall disappears to reveal an identical room behind, with another Paul sitting there. Walls and floors slide around drunkenly as the dream progresses, but it's always anchored in the details of reality. This is no escapist fantasy but Paul's critical examination of his daily life through the liberating medium of the dream - psychoanalysis without the couch. The portrait pops up again and again, as does Paul's other precious relic of his wife, the dead Marie's 'braid' - here, presumably for the benefit of the back rows, a huge blonde tranny wig. It's all brilliantly simple - by homing in on a few key images, the fiddly hallucinatory details flash past and momentum is maintained.
Philippe Auguin's Vienna conducting debut hardly set the place alight, but it was solid enough, if rather stodgy, though he did manage some translucency in the densely textured scoring. His big mistake was to misjudge the acoustic. Vienna's shallow pit spreads and magnifies the sound, and he simply allowed the orchestra to play too loud too often, overwhelming every single one of the singers at various points. My own ears were physically hurting through most of the first scene, though I was halfway back, so I can only imagine the musicians were either earplugged or already half-deaf.
Even Klaus Florian Vogt, who normally powers through anything like a drill, struggled to be heard at times. His lyrical and enigmatic Paul anchored the production, unflagging despite his near-constant presence on stage. The tone was unfailingly beautiful, barely shaded - but perhaps a result of the passive characterisation imposed by the production. And if you want to know why most of my Vogt photos are fuzzy, it's because the floor was shaking with the applause at every curtain call he took.
In the triple role of the virtuous Marie, the carefree flapper 'real' Marietta and the monstrous 'dream/nightmare' Marietta, Angela Denoke proved what a wonderful and versatile actress she is. Not to mention fearless and completely lacking in vanity - she spent most of the evening bald, after throwing her blonde wig in Paul's face, a rebuke to his obsession with Marie's braid. Vocally, she had more power than sheer beauty, but this was no disadvantage with Auguin's ear-bending volume. She convinced dramatically and nailed all the notes, which was as much as could be asked of her in the circumstances.
Markus Eiche, Paul's friend Frank, had the smallest voice, and suffered most from the aural assault. He was more audible in his dream-sequence alterego of Fritz the Pierrot - so much so that I wonder if the set for the opening and closing scenes had some sort of sound-absorbing effect that accentuated M.Auguin's heavy metal approach. Janina Baechle's solid Brigitta was yet another impressive performance.
Whether next year's Covent Garden cast slot quite as perfectly into their roles remains to be seen, but with Ingo Metzmacher scheduled to conduct, maybe at least they'll be audible.
This is the Staatsoper's promo video - featuring the previous cast, which included Angela Denoke.