After last season’s new production of Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten, the Komische Oper adds, with Die tote Stadt, another work to its repertoire from that post-Wagnerian generation obsessed with obsession, overwrought counterpoint and orchestral textures dripping with decadence, glockenspiel and triangle. Both works obviously represent a departure for the smallest of Berlin’s three main opera houses, and it gives some indication of their approach to casting when I say that I last heard the singers here tackling Paul and his friend Frank as Lensky and Onegin in Barry Kosky’s production of Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece.

Sara Jakubiak (Marietta) © Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de
Sara Jakubiak (Marietta)
© Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de

Aleš Briscein is certainly no Heldentenor, but he nevertheless had a very good stab at Paul, his voice – lyric and with a pleasing slavic twang – staying the course admirably. Günter Papendell’s slightly woody, stiff vocalism, served him better as Frank than when doubling up for the Pierrot’s wistful aria. As Marietta, Sara Jukubiak was tireless, flooding her music with plenty of vibrant, exciting tone – and she performed her reliably gorgeous song beautifully. Maria Fiselier stood out too as Paul’s maid, Brigitta. 

Ainārs Rubiķis’s conducting was full passion, drive and delicacy, and the beauty of the first act’s conclusion – Rosenkavalier-like nostalgia boosted by that special Korngoldian bittersweet blend – came across movingly. But it all felt a little small scale, and the orchestral playing was often scrappy, the magic carpet of Korngold’s orchestration frayed around the edges. 

Sara Jakubiak (Marietta) and Aleš Briscein (Paul) © Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de
Sara Jakubiak (Marietta) and Aleš Briscein (Paul)
© Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de

There were a few loose threads in Robert Carsen’s production, too, which opted – hardly an original trick for this director – to stage the work during the time of composition or, more accurately, in the decade of its première: the 1920s. Paul’s house, where he tends his modest shrine to the dead Marie, is a smart high-ceilinged apartment not dissimilar to the high-ceilinged apartment that served as the Marschallin’s bedroom in Carsen’s similarly updated Rosenkavalier seen in London and New York. 

Korngold’s work already features a vast central dream sequence bookended by brief brushes with reality – although in Paul’s world the line is a distinctly hazy one – but Carsen offers another framing device. We start with Frank arriving as a detective to investigate the murder of Marie or Marietta: the line is left blurred. At the close, he and Brigitta appear in white coats, apparently to cart Paul off to an institution. It’s probably the best place for him. But Carsen’s staging of the central vision is smart and slick. Michael Levine’s elegant set drifts apart, the furniture is whisked off to reappear bedecked, along with a troupe of dancers, in sparkles as we enter the world of Weimar cabaret. In one particularly nice touch, Marietta reappears, descending from the flies, dangling from the Jugendstil chandelier. 

Sara Jakubiak (Marietta) © Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de
Sara Jakubiak (Marietta)
© Iko Freese | drama-berlin.de

It’s a good show, certainly, but the production as a whole feels a little too bright and breezy for the subject in hand. I wasn’t convinced that this was the sort of place in which Paul’s obsessions would be allowed to fester. Vienna’s “deadness” seems far too subtle to substitute for what we imagine is the deadness of the very different city of Bruges, and Carsen’s staging offers little scope for our own imagination to picture what that might be. It also made for a few awkward inconsistencies, not least when Paul was forced to magic up an improbable lute from behind a cupboard for Marietta’s song. 

Though widely performed these days, Korngold’s work – like Die Gezeichneten – still, for me, raises larger questions. Is it too interested in examining its characters’ psychology to make those characters either sympathetic or terribly interesting in the first place, for example? Perhaps the sign of a great performance is that it should make one forget such reservations, not to mention those about the clunky symbolism and pretentiousness of the libretto (written under a pseudonym by Korngold’s critic father). This production and musical performance didn’t quite manage that. 

***11