The Longborough Festival Opera is performing the opera Die Tote Stadt (The Dead City) by Erich Wolfgang Korngold in what they call a semi-staged concert production. The first thing to say is that it was a privilege to hear this work so convincingly presented both musically and dramatically. I am not one who thinks it is a masterpiece. It is, however, a very interesting work, very much a product of its context, which to me is the Expressionistic movement of the 1920s and 1930. In that sense you could say it is the equivalent of a German language attempt at a new kind of psychological and symbolic verismo; and certainly the psychological thriller and psychological analysis aspects of the tale works well in this production. Musically, it is astonishing that the composer was only 23 when he wrote this very accomplished score and the main musical theme embodied in Marietta’s Lied is gorgeous, unforgettable and a superb pivot for the drama. I would rank this opera along with something like Adriana Lecouvreur or Andrea Chenier, perhaps. I personally have always found the middle act a bit weaker than the rest; but the climax to which the tale rises, both dramatically and musically, works brilliantly, I think, is superbly conceived, and certainly leaves a lasting impression of a work that is well worth getting to know. Both musically and psychologically the final sequence finally frees the hero from his prison and has a redemptive and positive impact.
The performance at Longborough does the work itself a real service. Longborough is particularly fortunate to get Rachel Nicholls playing Marietta and the Ghost of Marie at short notice. She brings real conviction to her performance as an intelligent, complex and life-loving member of a theatrical troupe who tries to rescue Paul from his mental shackles and her voice has the perfect timbre for this music. The tale is really a psycho-dramatic fable about breaking free from the imprisonment of trauma and obsessions. Peter Auty is a sympathetic and sonorous Paul, a man haunted and painfully trapped by his love for his dead wife and his inability to break free of his past love and pain. The dramatic tension between his struggle to remain faithful to Marie and Marietta’s struggle to break him free and affirm living to the full is fully embodied in the famous haunting song of Marietta. Stephanie Windsor-Lewis, Benson Wilson, Alexander Sprague and Lee David Bowen fill out the cast strongly, mostly in multiple roles. They are especially striking as the troupe of strolling players and do their central scene in Act II entertainingly, given that for me that sequence has always seemed too long and slightly out of place, a kind of reference to the players in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, perhaps.
The design by Nate Gibson is visually arresting and suitably full of symbols of the troubles in Paul’s mind, especially the multiple votive candles and pictures and empty picture frames. Director Carmen Jakobi has a great sympathy for and understanding of the implications of the tale and its style; and conductor Justin Brown has the full measure of the sonorous, haunting and difficult score which he handles with total control. The influences of Puccini and especially Richard Strauss are clearly brought out; and the cleverly scoring for this production nevertheless fully gives us the essentially modernistic sonorities of the original score and its unquestionable lyricism.
This is a strong and elegant presentation of an unjustly neglected work and another example of how Longborough Festival Opera appreciates each work that it presents on its own merits, understands and knows how to bring out its idiom and its unique qualities.