The most striking thing about Korngold’s Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) is just how bizarre it is. The music is sumptuous, a precocious accomplishment by its 22-year-old composer in the 1920s. It’s also utterly familiar-sounding, both because of the strong echoes of Richard Strauss and because Korngold scored many classic Hollywood films.

<i>Die tote Stadt</i> © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn
Die tote Stadt
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn

This easy listening combines awkwardly with an outlandish plot: a widower (Paul) in Bruges is obsessed with the memory of his dead wife (Marie), especially her portrait and a braid of her golden hair. When he meets a young dancer (Marietta) who resembles the dead woman, he falls in love with her. In an extended dream sequence, he sees his love for her alienating him from his only friends and becoming a base lust. As Marietta taunts Paul about his relics of Marie, Paul strangles Marietta with Marie’s hair. He wakes to find that his friends still care for him, Marietta is still alive, and it is time to leave behind his dead wife and the dead city of Bruges.

Willy Decker’s 2004 production has been seen previously in Salzburg, London, San Francisco, and here at the Vienna State Opera. It serves the opera’s plot well, drawing a clear distinction between the real world and Paul’s dream. As Paul drifts off, the set is doubled – one Paul sleeps while the other sees his dead wife. The ceiling tilts at an odd angle and dark houses whirl by. The theatrical troupe of the second act invades Paul’s mind with their bright white outfits and harsh laughter, preceded by a playful trio of balloons. Decker keeps his images prominent and simple: repeated portraits of Marie, both physical and projected, and a large white cross (a nod to Marie’s apparent death and resurrection).

Camilla Nylund (Marietta) © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn
Camilla Nylund (Marietta)
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn

But beautiful images don’t make a drama. Until the murder attempt, you’d be forgiven for dozing off along with Paul. He is a listless man, and his surreal dreams seem more depressing than energizing. Even his love for his dead wife reeks of inertia, not passion. It’s unclear why Marietta is fascinated by him, and it’s equally unclear why his dream of her finally breaks his passivity. Perhaps the problem of low stakes is insurmountable when an opera includes very little action, all of it in a dream sequence. This production, at least, doesn’t surmount it.

The music, led my Mikko Franck, was calm and cinematic. The orchestra played Korngold’s flowing score smoothly, with only the occasional energetic forte. Their restrained volume and interpretive choices allowed the voices to be heard clearly (often a problem in this house and with this music) but did little to add excitement to the evening. Some woodwind missteps also marred the shimmering soundscape.

Adrian Eröd (Frank) © Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn
Adrian Eröd (Frank)
© Wiener Staatsoper GmbH | Michael Pöhn

The voices were worth hearing. Klaus Florian Vogt sang Paul in a muscular tenor, powerful but lacking in expressive nuance. His most moving singing was his softest – his final reprise of “Glück, das mir verblieb”. As his beloved Marie/Marietta, Camilla Nylund showed off a ringing soprano with impressively controlled crescendos. Nylund moved across the stage and draped herself across chairs with aplomb; Vogt seemed more awkward and largely confined his acting to grabbing other characters’ lapels. Baritone Adrian Eröd embodied both the supportive Frank and the mocking Fritz, recovering from a slightly wobbly start of “Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen” to deliver the rest of the song with clear tone and feeling. Monika Bohinec also impressed with her rich low notes in the small role of the maid Brigitta.

As a competent performance of an operatic rarity, this Die tote Stadt delivers. But as music drama, it inspires no excitement.