Erich Wolfgang Korngold - Die Tote Stadt
Finnish National Opera, 2010
Mikko Franck, Kasper Holten, Klaus Florian Vogt, Camilla Nylund, Kirsti Valve, Markus Eiche, Sari Nordqvist, Kaisa Ranta, Melis Jaatinen, Per-Hakan Precht, Juka Riihimaki, Antti Nieminen
Opus Arte - DVD
Written when he was just 23 years of age and first performed in 1920, the high Romantic notions conflating love and death are particularly evident in Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Die Tote Stadt - The Dead City. The Liebestod-like sentiments are expressed in Wagnerian fashion with an underlying Straussian Salome-like discordance, but what is notable about Die Tote Stadt is how it takes these ideas to even greater levels in its consideration of the underlying psychology or even pathology of his main character through dreams fantasies and impressions. The formal challenges of representing this in a production of the work then are considerable, but so too is the technical virtuosity of the orchestra and the singers to express this often difficult work. Both elements however are handled exceptionally well in this 2010 production from the Finnish National Opera.
Much like Alfred Hitchcock's 'Vertigo', which follows a similar dysfunctional character who attempts to recreate his dead love in another person and relies very much on the varying tones and labyrinthine character of San Francisco and its outlying locations, Die Tote Stadt is a psychological study that is connected very closely with the nature of a city, in this case Bruges. You could say that this aspect is somewhat over-emphasised in the libretto, Paul noting that "the dead woman, the dead city... there's a mysterious bond between them" and Brigitta quoting Paul as saying "Bruges and I, we are one, we worship the most beautiful, the Past", but this is just one element in a deeper conflict that Paul has to reconcile between the past and the present, between the living and the dead, between an ideal and the reality.
Just as Paul's home then is a shrine to his dead wife Marie, so too he sees Bruges as a city of the dead, a monument to those who have lived before, the memory of the past being desecrated by the living. Whether this needs additional emphasis or not, Es Devlin's designs for Kasper Holten's production emphatically puts both Paul's room and the city, as a reflection of his inner mindset, right up there on the stage. It looks terrific, the room expressionistically designed with oppressive angles, littered in an obsessively organised fashion with pictures, portraits, mementos and shrine-boxes dedicated to Marie. At the back, tilted, but almost at right-angle to the stage, a vertiginous section of the city is revealed, bearing down on Paul.
Two other elements of the production and the stage design are relevant to this expression of Paul's mindset. One is the large bed in the centre of it all, which indicates on the one hand that much of what goes on is a dream in Paul's head and on the other hand it reflects much of Paul's repressed and misplaced urges. Much like Stefan Herheim's psycho-sexual study of Wagner in his Bayreuth Parsifal, where figures similarly emerge from beneath the sheets, there's a sense of guilt and corruption that Paul here associates with the sexual act, unable to reconcile the pure memory of the dead Marie with his feelings for the sensuous dancer Marietta. The other element helps make this problem more concrete by using an actor to play the ghost of Marie, having her present on the stage with her lookalike Marietta. It may not be called for, but it does make Paul's dilemma all the more real.
If there are any questions about Kasper Holten employing such techniques, they are at least borne out in how they fit with Korngold's musical arrangements for Die Tote Stadt. Musically, the opera doesn't follow any straightforward formal structure or narrative but follows its own chromatic muse, blending styles and working with a fragmentary montage of songs and waltzes, switching from lush orchestration to discordance according to the ecstatic reverie or the the tormented state of its protagonist. Wagner and Strauss may be the antecedents of this style, but there's a commonality here with Puccini, particularly the impressionistic style of Il Trittico and his latter works, and an awareness of cinematic structures which Korngold would develop later through his years in Hollywood.
The opera is consequently highly demanding of its performers, particularly the role of Marietta, which is pitched at the level of a Straussian soprano. Camilla Nylund has everything that is required here, the range, the stamina, and a necessary beauty in the colour of timbre and expression. She is simply phenomenal. This is a great performance. Klaus Florian Vogt's high sweet tenor might not seem like the ideal voice for the equally challenging role of Paul and he does struggle sometimes at the lower end of the tessitura. He brings a glorious soaring quality however to those ecstatic moments and a sense of vulnerability to his character that is not there, for example, in Torsten Kerl's strident singing of the role on the 2001 Opéra National du Rhin recording.
The Opus Arte release of the Finnish National Opera's 2010 production is released on DVD only, spread across a 2-disc set. The source is certainly not HD, but even in Standard Definition the image quality is somewhat disappointing, lacking real clarity and even appearing to be a little juddery in its NTSC transfer. It does however represent the light, colour and detail of the darkened stage production reasonably well. The LPCM stereo and DTS Surround 5.1 audio tracks don't have the depth of a high resolution recording either, the music not really lifting out or revealing the detail and colour of the orchestration, but that could also be down to the performance which doesn't seem to express the full quality of Korngold's lush score. The only extra feature on the disc is a Cast Gallery. Subtitles are in English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.