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Published: 5 February 2009
Belated debut for Korngold’s psychodrama

Royal Opera House

DUBBED the “Viennese Puccini”, the prodigiously talented Erich Korngold was lauded by Mahler and Strauss when he burst on to the fin de siècle Viennese musical scene.
His third opera, Die tote Stadt, a Freudian psychodrama written when he was just 23, was the operatic hit of the 1920s. Strangely, it missed Covent Garden in its heyday, and in this belated and welcome UK stage debut the Royal Opera does it proud.
There are striking parallels between Korngold’s life and that of Berthold Goldschmidt, who settled in Hampstead. Both were fêted young composers in pre-war Europe, their operas hailed as masterpieces; both fled from Nazi persecution; and both careers ended in the post-war era because they firmly rejected Schoenberg’s atonal experiments.
But while Goldschmidt lived long enough to see his music re-discovered, Korngold died in 1957, it is said, of a broken heart.
Like many eminent artistic refugees, he had found fame and Oscars with his virtuosic film scores in the golden age of Hollywood, credited with the invention of the symphonic movie. But after the war that popularity worked against him. His violin concerto of 1947 was rejected by the musical elite and derided as “more corn that gold”. Thereafter nearly all his work was neglected.
The opera’s story is based on Georges Roddenbach’s Belgian symbolist novel about a grief-stricken man unable to forget his dead wife Marie. A chance meeting with Marietta, a young dancer who resembles her, gives rise to what little action there is: a long Freudian dream sequence replete with religious symbolism, mixing nuns and commedia dell ’arte performers.
Willy Decker’s stylish production, created in 2004 for Salzburg, is clever and imaginative, its shifting walls and ceiling setting the eerie atmosphere.
The score is a technically brilliant example of sump­tuous late-Romanticism with many echos of Richard Strauss. But for all its sound, fury and swooning expressionism it does not convey real emotional depth.
Apart from two rather slight arias the vocal writing is ungrateful. For me the most engaging moments were the purely orchestral ones.
Nadja Michael as Marie/Marietta is a compelling singing-actress with slim figure and a dancer’s grace. But her singing is too often compromised by lack of support, leading sometimes to poor intonation and strained top notes.
Stephen Gould’s fine tenor has the stamina for Paul’s long and heroic part with its demanding high tessitura, but seems unable to inject any legato phrasing or sing at less than a constant fortissimo. It is left to the ever-admirable Gerald Finley (Frank/Fritz) to show how to sing this music beautifully.
The supporting roles were all strongly taken. Two of them, Ji-Min Park and Simona Mihai, of Covent Garden’s Jette Parker Youg artists Programme, can be heard at Channing School this Sunday in a programme with Robert Lloyd in aid of the Highgate Institution (see box inset).
Ingo Metzmacher, a leading interpreter of 20th-cen­tury opera, conducts the Royal Opera Orchestra in a splendid account of the score.
Helen Lawrence

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