Photo, English National Opera
Saturday, March 25, 2023
The Coliseum, London
Guest Reviewer, David Gutman
Long condemned for its reliance on a regressive, played-out seam of romanticism, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s first full-length opera and biggest 1920s’ hit would appear to have confounded the sceptics and returned to the operatic mainstream. Successful stagings in several European houses demonstrate the range of possibilities inherent in material which, while very much of its time, can also be wrenched into our own.
The story is both simple yet complex. Paul, the central character, is obsessed with the memory of his dead wife, Marie, and much of the opera consists of a disastrous imaginary tryst with her doppelgänger, Marietta. Cuts aside, the music is a constant but the nature of the piece is distinctly mutable. Some productions take their cue from the oppressive candle-lit atmosphere of pre-touristified Bruges (as in last year’s Longborough Festival Opera staging by Carmen Jakobi). Others go for psychological verisimilitude in a contemporary setting (q.v. Simon Stone’s acclaimed modern-dress production which went on to wow Bavarian State Opera audiences). With a narrative not unlike Hitchcock’s Vertigo but contingent on the ‘it-was-all-a-dream’ conceit associated with Dallas series nine, the opera can descend into a sort of inconsequential camp. Another big problem is the physically taxing writing for its main protagonists. Covent Garden’s 2009 staging failed mainly through casting a star soprano better at calisthenics than hitting the high notes.
ENO’s artistic director Annilese Miskimmon throws caution to the wind by removing almost all the opera’s picturesque nineteenth-century references. There are no empty streets or shimmering canals although the back wall of the set disappears for Act II, revealing a dreamily suggestive soft blue void well suited to timeless bell-capped ecclesiastical processionals. It might also be thought to signal a world untethered from reality, except that Act III takes us back inside Paul’s shuttered four walls before the marathon hallucination is complete. So where are we? This is not the era of Spiritualism and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, though Paul looks comparably tweedy. No pandemics feature. For reasons unexplained, we seem to be in the 1950s. Miriam Buether’s design as lit by James Farncombe is handsome, the costumes less so. The space, strewn with red roses in Act I, is sparsely furnished. Then again it need not be cluttered with memorabilia because a ghostly Marie is given a tangible if silent presence, at times directly addressed by other characters. Her legitimate, relatively brief vocal contribution is delivered from the wings. She looks nothing like Marietta and their outfits exaggerate the difference in body type. But then Miskimmon has reimagined the plot as a sort of love triangle, developing this concept through a problematic third Act.
Its coups de théâtre include Marie’s descent from the flies draped over her coffin. The would-be accessible translation does not always help either, blocking off subtler more ambiguous readings. The notion that someone who dies must always die twice, first in reality and then in the memory of the bereaved, was never likely to be accommodated. Also unhelpful is the decision to play a couple of musically powerful orchestral passages with the curtain down: today’s audiences invariably consider this a cue to chat, munch or check the mobile phone, so why do directors insist on such archaic practices?
Rolf Romei sang Paul at Bucharest’s Enescu Festival in 2021 and the following year at the belated Russian premiere of the work at Moscow’s Novaya Opera. That was on the cusp of the invasion of Ukraine. His ENO first-night was preceded by an announcement of ill-health so it is perhaps unfair to criticise the element of strain in his committed performance. Radiographer turned soprano, Allison Oakes sang Marietta/Marie at Hamburg’s Staatsoper in 2018, around the time she began undertaking heavier Wagnerian roles. While the voice is probably still bigger now and not always beautiful she managed to scale it down for the totemic ‘Glück, das mir verblieb’. Sarah Connolly is luxury casting in the subsidiary role of Brigitta but then she has more than once recorded songs by Korngold so must be committed to the cause. Even she is more reserved than empathetic on this occasion. None of the characters comes over as warm or likeable but Frank/Fritz as incarnated by Audun Iversen comes closest. ‘Pierrot’s Tanzlied’, the baritone’s standout aria, is still a tad breezy and straitlaced however; it acquires a generic Viennese bounce rather than a specifically Korngoldian nostalgia.
Indeed the composer’s Strauss-meets-Puccini soundworld, festooned with bells, keyboards and harps, seems a little muted throughout. Under Kirill Karabits, the playing is serviceable rather than refulgent, reminding us that Korngold is never an easy option. The eighty-eight musicians spill over into adjacent boxes.
This is plainly one of ENO’s most important new shows. Sad to say, it slightly misfires. Perhaps it was bound to seem pale beside the tried and tested Akhnaten. You should decide for yourself in a run that continues until April 8. Masterpiece or not, the score is never less than intriguing.
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
Annilese Miskimmon – Director
Miriam Buether – Set Designer
James Farncombe – Lighting Designer
Imogen Knight – Movement Director & Intimacy Coordinator [sic]
Nicky Gillibrand – Costume Designer
This review will also appear on Classical Source