The Dead City
Die Tote Stadt

Reviewer's rating

Shame on the Arts Council for effectively reducing London to one opera house, making it the poor man of Europe, less attractive to singers and tourists. Most European capital cities have at least two opera houses, with one in every important town. That’s why British singers are forced to study in Germany, Switzerland, Italy and other countries. Hopefully they will come to their senses and understand what a terrible mistake they are making in cutting ENO London funding from next April. Losing London’s second, very important opera house will be a tragedy. We shall lose many talented British singers, and the next generation of opera-goers.

The lunacy of ENO is clear from the incredible success of Die Tote Stadt, and Akhnaten.  Both are virtually sold out every night, an unbelievable feat, bearing in mind the huge theatre. Once ENO is forced North, that will probably be the end; the chorus and orchestra will not want to live out of London It is popular with tourists, younger audiences, those who want to hear opera in English and those who don’t want to pay the higher prices at ROH. Tickets are free for under 21s, discounted for under 35; this is a fantastic way to introduce a new generation to the operatic world.

Korngold was a child genius, writing this at 23, writing the libretto with his father. It was one of the greatest hits of the 1920’s, performed throughout the world. It resonated as so many had died from the Spanish flu; although we never know why Marie died so young, this could have been the cause. Such was the competition among German opera houses, that it had a double premiere in Munich and Cologne, a previously unheard-of event.  The Berlin premiere on 12th April 1924 had Lillie Lehman as Marietta and Richard Tauber as Paul. With the rise of the Nazis, Korngold followed his friend, Max Reinhardt persuaded Korngold to America, where he thereafter wrote Hollywood film scores (including Captain Blood with Errol Flynn). Die Tote Stadt was banned by the Nazis due to Korngold’s Jewish ancestry.

Tote Stadt describes the emotional conflict of Paul, grieving for his dead wife Marie, who spots Marietta on a canal; she uncannily resembles his dead wife (except she doesn’t at all in this production). Or perhaps that is the point – Marietta doesn’t look like Marie, but Paul is nonetheless infatuated. Tortured with guilt by his infatuation with Marietta, he hallucinates most of the time, until at the end, brought to his senses, he leaves his house which was kept as a mausoleum for Marie, to move on with his life.

Annilese Miskimmon evades many production problems using a set with a rectangular living room and an opening roof for Marie’s coffin to be lowered above the stage; the back wall disappears for the religious processions which become Paul’s hallucinatory world. The stage is flooded with red roses, Paul’s homage to Marie. Both Marietta’s dresses have prominent red roses, highlighting Paul’s confusion between the two women.

Both Paul, (Swiss tenor Rolf Romei), and Marietta (British Wagnerian soprano Allison Oakes) are very demanding parts. Romei has sung this in German in Europe, here he sings in excellent English. Allison Oakes’ career has been entirely abroad, mainly in Germany; ENO brought her home for the first time for this! She was powerful and fabulous. Oakes also sings the dead wife, Marie. British mezzo, Sarah Connolly is luxury casting as the housekeeper Brigitta. All were in fine voice.

Ukranian conductor Karabits leads the expanded orchestra of 88 musicians (sometimes overflowing into the side boxes) creates a wonderful sound.

The music is Puccini meets Strauss meets Hollywood, it is modern and romantic, delving into the mental breakdown caused by overwhelming grief. Many will be familiar with the luscious magical music of Marrietta’s lied; this is a whole evening of rich, immersive music, where the sound floods over you. The audience was full of younger people, the next generation of opera goers; they loved it. No wonder it has been enthusiastically received to packed houses.

Die Tote Stadt is not performed often, so see it if you can.