Early Hollywood film composer's opera about sex and death

Die Tote Stadt by Erich Korngold

Oper, Frankfurt

Until November 6

Eric Korngold is probably one of the most important film composers of the mid twentieth century whose work transformed the way in which music for films was composed. His successes earned him numerous awards including two Oscars notably for the Errol Flynn film “The Adventures of Robin Hood”.

His opera Die Tote Stadt (The Dead City) when it debuted in Germany in 1920 was considered to be an important work and was performed around the globe at the time. However his work was banned under the Nazi regime and it was some time before it began appearing in opera houses.

While it was performed in several European opera houses in the late twentieth century it only had its first UK staged performance in 2009.

The work tells of Paul, who some years ago lost his wife Marie and his infatuation with her dominates his life. He keeps a room in his house as a shrine devoted to her. It contains various memories of her – clothes, scarves, images of her and a long tress of her hair along with candles and fresh flowers.

He meets Marietta who reminds him of his wife but the relationship for him is not for a new start in life but for Marietta to replace his wife as a simulacrum of her. His housemaid Brigitta and best friend Frank try and reason with him about the folly of his relationship.

The opera opens in a theatrical manner with Brigitta and Frank opening the curtains, inviting the audience to watch this tale of a flawed and destructive life. The two of them remonstrate and plead with Paul about his preoccupation with retaining the memory of his wife. He tells them that he has a new girlfriend Marietta and that things will change. When she arrives at his house it is clear that it is her resemblance his dead wife which attracts him to her, particularly her red dress.

In the second section members of the circus troupe Marietta belongs to arrive and prepare to organise a spontaneous cabaret event. They variously appear as clowns, death masks, skeletons and burlesque performers. Their costumes and make up has them looking like images from the paintings of Max Beckmann and one of the characters look like a figure from the film the Cabinet of Dr Caligari.

The opera's theme of the loss of a loved and coming to terms with moving on was a theme which was particularly relevant to a Europe which had suffered widespread loss during World War I but the work can now be interpreted in terms of sexual obsessions and disillusioned sacrifice. There is a surreal element to the work with several dream sequences some of which feature the red dress of Paul’s wife. In one scene a male Negro wearing the dress dances over the prostate body of Paul and in another, ten females with masks of his wife, wearing red dresses taunt him.

These elements underscore the preoccupations and tensions between sex and death as well the notions of pure and profane love. Paul wavers between being a rational, normal person with feeling for Marietta and a man on the edge of madness or sexual obsession and is outraged when Frank admits to an affair with Marietta.

Korngold’s music is expressionist as was much of the art of the period but he managed to combine this with the romanticism of the nineteenth century along with a melodic modernism. There are traces of Verdi and Puccini as well as Strauss and Lehar with the music provides a strong melodic line which gives great scope for all the singers.

Brigitta sung by Maria Pantiukhova had a bright clear voice, with a simple and straightforward manner emphasising the sense of the despair she displays in agonizing about her employers predicament Bjorn Burger’s Frank is the voice of reason in contrast to Paul. His serene, composed singing a highlights the differences between the two characters.

Paul sung by David Pomeroy was able to show the range of emotional states with singing that ranged from the serene to the nervous, through to the cruel.

Sara Jakubiak sang the role of Marietta as well as the lesser role of Marie. She was able to convey the complex character of Marietta changing the power and the mood of her singing to emphasise the varying aspects of her personality ranging from the serene to the venomous. She appears to be in love with Paul, intrigued by her power over him, fascinated by her attraction to him and shocked at his use of her as a surrogate.

Paul in his attempts to woo Marietta is convincing in the way he conducts himself and expresses his love but this is really all about transference and requires Marietta to be just like his wife. Whenever Marietta strays from his script or asserts herself he becomes agitated and violent. In the penultimate scene he attacks Marietta attempting to strangle her with his wife’s length of hair.

There were times when the singing of Jakubiak and Pomeroy was blissful and lyrical, taking them to an idyllic place and then it would evaporate to be replaced with savage acidity.

The set was relatively minimal with the large white cube of the memory box / shrine surrounded on two sides by high dark walls which have a number of openings in which real and dream characters appeared occasionally.

Frankfurt Opera will feature a number of works next year including new productions of Handel’s “Radamisto”, Janacek’s “The Cunning Little Vixen”, Berg’s “Wozzeck”, Verdi’s “Stifello” and Lehar’s “The Count of Luxembourg”.

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