Erich Korngold was only 23 years old when his most famous opera Die Tote Stadt was first performed in Hamburg and Cologne. The music is dramatic and forward-looking, with lush strings melodies punctuated by dissonant and syncopated rhythms played by woodwinds and percussion. Richard Strauss’ influence is paramount, in particular in the prelude to Act 3 which signals a hopeful development in the tormented life of Paul, who has shut himself off from the world after the death of his wife Marie. As the opera begins, Paul reports to his friend Frank that he met a dancer Marietta, who resembles Marie. But in Paul’s unhinged mind, the boundary between reality and dream becomes blurred, and in his dream state he murders Marietta when she taunts him for his holding onto his wife’s lock of hair, photograph and shawl. The murder turns out to be Paul’s hallucination, and the opera ends after Marietta’s departure as Paul, purged of his grief, repeats the famous “Marietta’s Lied” sung as a duet in Act 1, ready to face the world again. 

Singing the music makes enormous demands on the two principals, Paul and Marietta. They must be able to marshal enough power and volume to cut through the thick orchestration but must also sustain soft lyrical passages. Tenor Klaus Florian Vogt, a veteran Paul, who performed in the première of Karoline Gruber's current Hamburg production in 2015, had no difficulty with the role’s demands. His high notes at times soared with thrilling force and beauty above the orchestra but also whispered with soft and tender pianissimo. His middle and low voice have developed with age, and his legato lines were audible and continuous throughout the role's wide range. His diction was clear as attention was paid to every word and phrase, embracing the character’s neurosis in fine acting. The character was on stage throughout the opera, and it was fascinating to watch Vogt react to the proceedings on stage even when he was not singing.  

Soprano Allison Oakes made a strong impression with her clear and straightforward singing as Marietta. Her voice, free of vibrato, hit the notes with razor-sharp precision. Her style was more dramatic than lyrical, and one might have wished for a little more warmth and tenderness. But it was exciting to experience a singer who could scale the heights of Korngold’s music with soaring beauty. Alexey Bogdanchikov as Frank/Fritz and Marta Swiderska as Brigitta made the best of their brief scenes. The orchestra led by Roland Kluttig played with vivid color and dynamism, as well as aching tenderness and sorrow.

Gruber's production emphasizes Paul’s neurotic obsession bordering on mental breakdown and delves deep in the role of dreams in Paul’s psyche. The Act 1 staging is dark, with floor and walls in black with painted patterns signifying Marie’s blonde hair. The stage is devoid of furniture with all the props on the floor. The director complicates Paul’s confusion of Marie/Marietta by giving the maid, Brigitta, an additional dimension of someone whose sympathy with Paul crosses the line of master/servant. Brigitta puts on Marietta's red dress and is replaced, in clever staging, by Marietta herself. But Marietta begins to take on the part of Brigitta by the end of Act 2, as Paul is plagued with a procession of imaginary beings, women with blonde hair, a group of men and women in the period clothing with ghostly makeup. The appearance of a large hull of a ship in Act 2 with Frank/Fritz wearing half a black wing is a nice touch, an obvious but clever reference to both Bruges, where the opera is set, and Hamburg, the location of the production, as two ports.  

It is unfortunate that despite all the clever ideas and insights, the production is cluttered, depressing and sometimes incomprehensible. What do the wings on Frank/Fritz’s back mean? Why is Marietta pregnant and wearing the maid’s costume at the beginning of Act 3? Does Paul want to recreate a happy family life with Marietta by having a baby? These ideas are not in the libretto, and introduce unnecessary complications. Korngold’s masterpiece, hailed as such in the 1920s and rescued in recent decades from its obscurity after the ban by the Nazis, has enough in its rich music and libretto to transport the audience into an imaginary world of a grief-stricken man to make additional layers of interpretation superfluous. At the end, before Paul sings the Lied, Frank asks him if he will leave the dead city with him, and Paul answers “I will try”. And yet this production does not offer any sign of possible redemption, as Paul is left on his chair, still bereft and desperate.