The onward march of Korngold's opera Die tote Stadt back into the mainstream continues with its return to the Bavarian State Opera after more than 60 years. And you're unlikely to come across a better performance of the work that famously had a double premiere in both Hamburg and Cologne on the same night in 1920 and then first reached Munich two years later. The opera then suffered from both Nazi racial-cultural policies and anti-Romantic modernist prejudices. But the gap between the city's single postwar staging in the mid-50s and today's did, however, provide the first full studio recording, made in the 70s with Erich Leinsdorf and Munich's other great orchestra, the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, and which effectively launched the opera on to its current revivalist trajectory.

Jonas Kaufmann (Paul) © Wilfried Hösl
Jonas Kaufmann (Paul)
© Wilfried Hösl

Simon Stone's production was first seen in Basel in 2016, and makes a good fit for the BSO stage. His concept has the smack of genius about it in the ingenuity and perceptiveness with which he conveys a plot that is in effect two-thirds a dream. The 'dead city' of the title, Bruges, merely becomes metaphor as a place to leave in order to overcome bereavement. Ralph Myers' single set is a modular house, first seen from the street as Paul's housekeeper, Brigitta, encourages his friend Frank to peer through the windows at the shrine Paul has installed as a memorial to his late wife, Marie, who, we are later shown, died from cancer. Moving inside, and the modern apartment is set in every realistic detail, down to the food packets in the kitchen cupboards. As Paul's imagination takes hold, when the arrival of his wife's lookalike, the dancer Marietta, sets him off into a lengthy reverie, the house begins to disassemble. His own rooms, switched around in position, become the lodgings of Marietta's debauched theatrical troupe, and when the dream turns ghoulish, Stone is brilliant at encapsulating the stuff of nightmares. Paul bumps into his own doppelganger in the warren of lanes that his house has become, doors in his home open on to brick walls where rooms should be, and his whole family, including children, first seen like a poignant flashback to happier times of easy domesticity, multiply to become the procession that invades and entraps his consciousness. As reality returns, so too does Paul's home in its original state.

Jonas Kaufmann (Paul) and Marlis Petersen (Marietta) © Wilfried Hösl
Jonas Kaufmann (Paul) and Marlis Petersen (Marietta)
© Wilfried Hösl

In any production of Die tote Stadt worth its salt the dividing line between dream and reality, as Paul pursues Marietta as a perceived reincarnation of his wife, needs to be ambiguous, something that Stone's approach achieves unfailingly, teasing us with situations that begin plausibly but drift off into unexpected visions. His direction of the singers is no less accomplished, helped by the fact that the BSO cast employs some of the best singing actors in the business.

Marlis Petersen (Marietta) and Andrzej Filonczyk (Frank/Fritz) © Wilfried Hösl
Marlis Petersen (Marietta) and Andrzej Filonczyk (Frank/Fritz)
© Wilfried Hösl

The tenor role of Paul is one of the most punishing in the repertoire, particularly high-lying, often histrionic in its force and as demanding as Siegfried but squeezed into an opera half the length of Wagner's eponymous work. In Jonas Kaufmann it has met its match: his stamina never lets up, he throws his all into the character and rattles off reams of mellifluous tone without the crooning that can sometimes dog his singing. No less a contribution was made by Marlis Petersen. Her voice may be on a more refined scale, but my goodness she can launch herself into a role, channelling Salome and Lulu into the taunting, lascivious Marietta of Paul's imagination. Birgitta perhaps lies a little high for Jennifer Johnston, but her communicativeness and velvety tone were much in evidence; Andrzej Filonczyk's double act as Frank and Franz was neatly drawn, with a beguiling Pierrot's Lied at its heart: and Mirjam Mesak (Juliette), Corinna Scheurle (Lucienne), Manuel Günther (Gaston/Victorian) and Dean Power (Graf Albert) made up the rest of the dance troupe, singing and acting with panache.

<i>Die tote Stadt</i> © Wilfried Hösl
Die tote Stadt
© Wilfried Hösl

To cap it all, the Bayerisches Staatsorchester's playing was incandescent. Kirill Petrenko, conducting his penultimate new production as the BSO's out-going general music director, was clearly loving every minute, coaxing sounds from Korngold's opulent, searing score that were both sumptuous and crystalline. True, his slow tempo for the return of “Glück, das mir verblieb” at the very end of the opera caught Kaufmann out briefly, but in general the pacing and the sheer generosity of the music-making were both impressive and emotionally satiating.


*****