Just a day after the final curtain of Götterdämmerung in Dresden and the fall of the old order, the curtain rose on Erich Korngold’s Die tote Stadt. This new production was premiered in December, almost a century after the last one in 1920, the year of its triumphant dual first performances. Written during the First World War by the teenage Korngold, already an internationally successful composer, his opera reflects the Zeitgeist. Empires fell and established customs and morality shattered. The population has suffered mass war carnage and epidemics. Based on a Symbolist Novel by the Belgian Georges Rodenbach, the city of Bruges is itself a symbol of neurosis, dislocation and loss.

Burkhard Fritz (Paul) © David Baltzer
Burkhard Fritz (Paul)
© David Baltzer

The widowed artist, Paul, has turned his dank studio into a shrine to his dead wife, Marie, dominated by an unfinished portrait in Expressionistic style. The mildewed walls are hung with pictures of her, the eyes disturbingly blanked out. Like the city, Paul is trapped in memories. Marie's golden tresses are kept in a bedside casket. Paul’s friend, Frank, tells his housekeeper that Paul’s depressed spirits have been raised by a chance meeting with Marietta, seemingly the physical re-embodiment of his dead wife. That morning she visits the studio for the first time. A vivacious dancer in a touring theatrical troupe, Marietta seems – in the neurasthenic mind of Paul – to be his resurrected wife. She is far from sharing her pious, chaste nature though and becomes a canvas onto which Paul can project his sexual frustration and scarcely suppressed violence.

Manuela Uhl (Marietta) and Burkhard Fritz (Paul) © David Baltzer
Manuela Uhl (Marietta) and Burkhard Fritz (Paul)
© David Baltzer

In David Bösch’s second Korngold production after his recent Das Wunder der Heliane at Opera Vlaanderen, his predilection for dark enclosed settings opening onto further dark perspectives is apparent in Patrick Bannwart’s lofty coffered set and use of phantasmagoric video. As reality becomes a distorted dream, images of Marie, religious symbols and the foetid canals of Bruges, in black and white negative, are projected over and through the now transparent walls. Nuns file across the stage, followed by the Easter processional of dead eyed child acolytes with distressed golden hair.

The death masked Pierrot troupe to which Marietta belongs, float over stagnant pools on sofas, as they mount a grotesque parody of the Resurrection scene from Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable. Bösch directs with nightmare edginess and physiological insight as the jealous Paul suspects Marietta of infidelity with Frank and, after a fervid love scene, strangles her with his wife’s tresses. Or does he?

Manuela Uhl (Marietta) and Burkhard Fritz (Paul) © David Baltzer
Manuela Uhl (Marietta) and Burkhard Fritz (Paul)
© David Baltzer

In the chill light of day, Paul returns to a semblance of sanity and Marietta, very much alive, drops by to fetch a forgotten umbrella, surely one of the oddest plot denouements in opera though of course in this production there is not one. After briefly flirting she leaves. Encouraged by Frank to move on and leave Bruges, Paul promises to do so to a poignant reprise of the hit song “Glück, das mir verblieb”. In his decadent world, however, there is no redemptive love or resurrection and as the stage darkens once more he lies on the ash-strewn floor caressing those tresses.

As Paul, Burkhard Fritz did not truly surmount the excessive demands of this strenuous and high-lying role, but his command of the idiom, dynamic sensitivity, physicality and sustained power earned much more than respect. Manuela Uhl as Marie/Marietta certainly caught the duality of the role, dancing with panache and allure. The edge of her soprano cut through the vast orchestration, and she delivered a hauntingly nostalgic Marietta’s Lied. The most cultivated singing came from Christian Pohl as Frank and Fritz the Pierrot, with his elegant smooth baritone line in the score’s other hit, “Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen”. The ripe contralto of Tichina Vaughn provided a sense of religious certainty in the part of Brigitta, the housekeeper. The off-stage Kinderchor were seraphic.

Christoph Pohl (Frank/Fritz) and Manuela Uhl (Marietta) © David Baltzer
Christoph Pohl (Frank/Fritz) and Manuela Uhl (Marietta)
© David Baltzer

The performance reached a truly exalted level in the sumptuous playing of the Staatskapelle under Dimitri Jurowski. In this opulent score, from the deep organ notes through the resounding bells of the Easter scene to the diabolical piccolos in the ballet, the orchestra played with unparalleled splendour and craft. The finesse of the brass, in no way exhausted after its Ring marathon, blended with the stylish woodwinds and the never-cloying silkiness of the strings. In a score that can be a Technicolor wallow, Jurowski’s sure sense of dramatic pulse and balance, encompassed the brash dance rhythms, religious grandeur, vivid tone painting and the extremes of dissonance.

By the time of the opera's première, Korngold was a mature 20-year-old, and the fact is that the score does lighten towards the end and one would like to think that, well-adjusted, he had purged his mind of morbid teenage fantasies of fetishes, abuse and bondage, unlike his hero Paul.

*****