In 1920 Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) triumphed with his psychological opera Die tote Stadt (The Dead City). At the time the work was performed in more than eighty cities, and the reviews were unanimously positive. The opera then disappeared from the stage for a long time, but is nowadays sporadically performed again. So it’s good that the Dutch Reisopera is bringing this almost forgotten piece back on stage. I wonder why we have ignored this flamboyant score full of scorching notes for so long.
For a long time we knew Korngold mainly as a composer of film music. He won Oscars with his scores for Robin Hood and Anthony Adverse, but his orchestral works were dismissed as kitsch. Over the last decade, however, his music has been rediscovered and he has received the appreciation he lacked for so long. His Violin Concerto in particular is frequently performed, almost to the point of being annoying. Beautiful piece, but there is danger in excess.
At the beginning of the previous century Erich Wolfgang Korngold was the acclaimed heir of Mozart, to whom he owes one of his first names. Just like his predecessor, he was strongly promoted by his father. Rumour even had it that his genius music was written by others. Born in 1897 in Brno, the capital of Moravia, he initially had everything going for him. His parents descended fom a Viennese family of wealthy wine merchants, and his father Julius was one of the most powerful music critics of his time.
Although Julius had studied with Anton Bruckner, he had not become a composer. – Perhaps that is why he so fervently promoted the talent of his son, who composed his first pieces at the age of six. With unceasing zeal daddy brought these to the attention of his many illustrious friends. When Erich Wolfgang played his cantata Gold to Gustav Mahler at the age of nine(!), this sparked his enthusiasm. Mahler called the precocious youngster a ‘genius’ and advised his father not to send him to the conservatory, but to the influential Alexander von Zemlinsky. Soon after, Korngold’s compositions were widely performed and published by the prestigious publishing house Universal.
From child prodigy to ‘kitsch composer’
The star of Korngold continued to rise uncessantly. At the age of nineteen he drew the attention with two one-acters, Der Ring des Polykrates and Violanta, staged in Munich and Vienna. But Korngold experienced his greatest triumph with Die tote Stadt, which he completed in 1920. The sizzling, late-Romantic score took the world by storm. Within a short period of time the opera was performed in in over eighty cities, including New York.
Critics wrote rave reviews. One of them noted: ‘The music flows so powerfully from the text that it determines the meaning of the work and makes it one of the most important operas written over a long period of time.’ But the times, they were a-changing. Gradually Korngold’s late-romanticism was eclipsed by Arnold Schönberg’s twelve-tone music and the ‘Gebrauchsmusik’ of Hindemith and Weill.
There were also major social upheavals. In 1934 the Jewish Korngold left for America, where he began a new career as a film composer. After the war his independent orchestral works were dismissed as ‘filmic kitsch’; in 1957 he died disillusioned in Hollywood. Unfortunately, he has not been able to witness the renewed interest in his Violin Concerto and the opera Die tote Stadt.
Together with his father Korngold wrote the libretto of Die tote Stadt, which takes place in Bruges. This city breathes a deadly atmosphere ‘because of its grey buildings, quiet waters and sombre churches’, Korngold opined. He based his libretto on the novel Bruges-la-morte by the Wallonian author Georges Rodenbach.
Sinister mourning process
The young Paul cherishes the memory of his deceased wife Marie in a sombre room, filled with memorabilia. When the dancer Marietta comes into his life, he recognizes his former wife in her. To his dismay, however, she has a completely different character, with which he cannot cope. Eventually he strangles her with Marie’s braid.
Only then does he awaken from his sinister mourning process and realize that you cannot live in the past. The music brims with compelling vocal lines and heartrending orchestral sounds, reminiscent of both early Schönberg and late Strauss. Moreover, the psychological drama perfectly suited the spirit of the times, which also contributed to the success of Die tote Stadt.
The opera was released on CD/DVD several times by renowned ensembles and singers, yet is rarely heard live in our country. Most recently in 2005, in a well received production by Dutch National Opera. Now the Nederlandse Reisopera is venturing into a new interpretation by director Jakob Peters-Messer, in a coproduction with Theater Magdeburg Germany.
Those who were interested had to travel to Amsterdam in 2005, but now ‘the Reisopera will bring Die tote Stadt to you’, as artistic director Nicolas Manfield subtly remarked during his presentation of the new season. – And, indeed, we can count ourselves lucky with this initiative.
Korngold: Die tote Stadt, 8 December 2018 through 9 April 2019, info and tickets here.