The title of Korngold’s opera Die tote Stadt – “The Dead City” – is an evocative and intriguing one. It was adapted from the novel Bruges-la-morte (1892) by the Belgian symbolist writer Georges Rodenbach, in which the city Bruges plays an integral part. Why is Bruges a dead city? Prosperous in the 12th to 15th centuries, the city gradually fell into decline when its channel to the sea began to silt and the canals became stagnant. In Rodenbach’s novel, the protagonist Hugues (“Paul” in Korngold’s opera), who cannot get over the loss of his beloved wife, identifies himself with the dead city, until one day he meets by a canal a lookalike to his wife, with whom he rapidly becomes infatuated. In Korngold’s opera, the voice of Paul’s dead wife Marie and her lookalike Marietta, a dancer, are sung by the same soprano, a dramatically effective ploy.

Bruges forms an important backdrop in Kasper Holten’s imaginative production of this work for the Finnish National Opera, originally seen in 2010 and revived in November (it also transfers to Tokyo’s New National Theatre next March). Essentially in a modern setting, it is ingenious both conceptually and visually, following closely Paul’s psychological state from his unhealthy obsession with his dead wife to finally letting her go. Holten’s main idea is to have the dead wife Marie played on stage by an actress, a phantom that can only be seen by Paul. In the wrong hands this could become tiresome, but in this production Marie is played so subtly and touchingly by the well-known Finnish actress Kirsti Valve that it feels absolutely natural to have her on stage. She reacts to everything that happens and her presence is especially effective when Marietta, in Act III Scene I, realising that there are three people in this relationship, confronts Marie in person (usually it would be sung to Marie’s portrait).

The set design by Es Devlin is impressive too – it is a single set consisting of a huge but claustrophobic room which is a shrine dedicated to the memory of Marie. Both side-walls are dominated by shelves up to the ceiling filled with her portraits and countless items of memorabilia. Apart from a big bed in the middle of the stage, the floor is also full of memories of her – letters, portraits, theatre tickets and the all-important braid of her golden hair, all in boxes. At the back is a large blind, which is closed at the beginning but gradually opens to let the light in, and in Act II it opens up showing an angled, panoramic view of Bruges. The lighting by Wolfgang Goebbel is especially effective – the room is variously lit gold (Act I), blue (Act II), red (Act III) and white (last scene of Act III),signaling the change in Paul’s emotional state. As the opera unfolds, one feels that the city – the outside world symbolized by Marietta – gradually invades Paul’s inner world.

Where the opera deviates from the novel is the ending: in Rodenbach, Paul actually kills Marietta when she demands too much from Paul and commits the sacrilege of touching Marie’s hair, but in Korngold’s opera, this all turns out to be part of a dream and finally Paul is liberated from Marie’s ghost. The libretto was jointly written by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (who was still only in his early twenties) and his father Julius under the pseudonym of Paul Schott. Having recently read the original novel, I found the effectiveness of their adaptation impressive (changing the chronology, creating new characters such as Paul’s friend Frank, incorporating a theatrical scene in Act II, etc.), which makes more dramatic sense and brings satisfying closure.

The singing in this Finnish production was outstanding. They were all from the original 2010 cast led by the celebrated German Heldentenor Klaus Florian Vogt as Paul and the Finnish lyric-dramatic soprano Camilla Nylund as Marie/Marietta. Vocally, Vogt was totally at ease in this role with his trademark clarity of tone and effortless high register, and he played Paul not as a mad person but as an ordinary person (if a little obsessive) who is unable to get over his loss. He was especially convincing in Act II Scene IV, when he is torn between his pure love for Marie and his lust for Marietta, finally succumbing to the latter. He was perfectly matched by Camilla Nylund’s feisty Marietta, whose seduction scenes in both Acts II and III were vocally and dramatically powerful. Doubling as Frank/Fritz (the Pierrot), the baritone Marcus Eiche showed strong presence and sang Pierrot’s Tanzlied with sweetness of tone and just the right amount of nostalgia. In the smaller roles, Sari Nordquist excelled as the housekeeper Brigitte. The chorus was also in fine form, although the children’s choir came through the speakers, as did Marie’s voice.

Korngold’s glorious and vivid orchestral score (complete with triple woodwind, two harps, piano and bells) was brought to life by the Finn Mikko Franck and the orchestra of the Finnish National Opera. Franck kept a strong hold on the music’s forward momentum and tension, creating several powerful climactic moments (in particular in the amazing Straussian dance scene at the end of Act I). On the other hand, he was happy to let Nylund indulge in Marietta’s Lied which was also poignantly repeated by Vogt at the end.

Finally a few words about the opera house situated on the shore of a beautiful bay on the north side of Helsinki. It opened in 1993 and is a modern horseshoe-shape theatre seating 1300 which has a lovely intimacy and the singing and orchestra felt really close in my stalls seat. The auditorium has a warm orange and white colour scheme and comfortable seats by a well-known Finnish designer. Also, the surtitles are in three languages (Finnish, Swedish and English), really helpful for the international visitor. Based on the quality of music-making on this visit, I would certainly be making a return trip, perhaps to a ballet as well.