Tuesday 28 March 2023

Die tote Stadt, English National Opera, 25 March 2023


Paul – Ralf Romei
Marietta, Voice of Marie – Allison Oakes
Brigitta – Sarah Connolly
Franz – Audun Iversen
Juliette – Rhian Lois
Lucienne – Clare Presland
Gastone – Innocent Masuku
Victorin – William Morgan
Count Albert – Hubert Francis
Marie – Lauren Bridle

Anniliese Miskimmon (director)
Miriam Buether (set designs)
Nicky Gillibrand (costumes)
James Farncombe (lighting)
Imogen Knight (movement, intimacy)

Members of the Finchley Children’s Music Group (chorus director: Grace Rossiter)
English National Opera Chorus (chorus director: Avishka Edirisinghe) 
Orchestra of the English National Opera
Kirill Karabits (conductor)

Images: Helen Murray
Brigitta (Sarah Connolly), Paul (Ralf Romei), Franz (Audun Iversen)

A few years ago, I should have said it was a problem with the work itself. Having seen Die tote Stadt for the first time, in a performance and a production that had both seemed very good, I had emerged finding it somewhat laboured and ridiculous: more than a curiosity, perhaps, yet not something whose appeal for others I could share. In the meantime, a concert performance of another Korngold opera, Das Wunder der Heliane, did little to change my mind. Then I decided to test my initial judgement by seeing Die tote Stadt again in Munich, when the Bavarian State Opera put on a new production, staged by Simon Stone, conducted by Kirill Petrenko, with Jonas Kaufmann and Marlis Petersen in the two central roles. And I was won over. So I know that it can work very well, or at least that it did for me once and there is no reason to think it could not do so again. Quite why this new production from ENO did not, I found hard to put my finger on, since there seemed to be much that was admirable and little or nothing that was not, reviving my doubts concerning the work itself.

The key, I think, may have lain in the production, which seems unfair, since there was nothing really to object to in what Anniliese Miskimmon and her team presented. But whereas I have often disliked Stone’s reductionist way with drama—his Medée for Salzburg and a recent Phaedra in London cases in point—in this case, it seemed to be just what the work, which can readily seem overblown to no particular end, needed. Without Stone’s stronger interpretative stance and strategy and however attractive Miriam Buether’s sets and Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes (with one unfortunate exception), drama lagged behind ambition. It was difficult not to feel that something smaller in scale, perhaps a one-act chamber opera, might have come close to hitting the spot, thus again returning one to the problem of the work ‘itself’. 

The dream world, in which Paul meets Marietta and works through his morbid attachment to his deceased wife, Marie, seemed confused—but not in an especially dream-like way. It seemed to imply that either Paul had actually entered a hospital or sanatorium, or he had been in one along; but no, it was only a dream. Marietta’s troupe invited unflattering comparisons with Ariadne auf Naxos. The 'dead' city of Bruges, or some substitute, did not get much of a look in – partly Korngold’s fault – and the strange religious procession came unfortunately close to the world of Carry On films, even for those of us who know the cited Robert le Diable. Certain other ‘religious’ details gestured in another, potentially more fruitful direction, though no more than Strauss does Korngold seem able to take religion seriously.

Juliette (Rhian Lois), Lucienne (Clare Presland), Count Albert (Hugh Francis), Marietta (Allison Oakes), Victorian (William Morgan), Innocent Masuku (Gastone), Franz

Singing, though, was mostly good, if sometimes hampered by a clunky English translation (‘based on’ Kelly Rourke) of a libretto that is in any case far from exemplary. Korngold and his dreadful father were no composite Hofmannsthal, to put it mildly. Though struggling with illness, Ralf Romei put on an impressive performance as Paul, only noticeably tiring some way through the third act—which is something that could happen to anyone. It is a cruel role, and Romei’s artistry proved something of a revelation. Allison Oakes was a nicely Wagnerian Marietta, with welcome echoes of Brünnhilde, though it was not always the most subtle of portrayals. Sarah Connolly left one wishing there was more to the role of Brigitta in a typically human, beautifully sung performance. Audun Iversen’s Franz was similarly first-class, offering fine attention to detail. Kirill Karabits knew exactly how to draw the best out of the ENO Orchestra, ensuring – rightly, I think – that the score sounded closer to Puccini than to any of Korngold’s Austro-German colleagues. But there were times when something sharper – and Puccini can be as sharp as anyone – seemed required, just as on stage. I imagine this might tighten over the run, but a greater dose of chamber-like intimacy might also be a good thing. 

I recognise also that much of the scepticism I voice concerning the opera others might with respect to Die Frau ohne Schatten, but there not only do we have Strauss and Hofmannsthal, even in mutual misunderstanding, at the very height of their powers; we also have a symbolism that attempts to elevate us to some sort of ‘higher’ ideas and even, more controversially, a message. Pronatalism is a deeply unfashionable message, one with which many of us would take issue, but drama is not there primarily for us to agree with it—and the message becomes more readily understandable in the face of the loss of life occasioned by the First World War. How to get on with one’s life in the face of more strictly personal loss is a perfectly reasonable subject for a drama; part, of what Die Meistersinger – another opera interested, albeit pre-Freud, in the interpretation of dreams – is about is how to cope with the sufferings of life and love in the actual, phenomenal world. Perhaps the problem is that the intermittent attempts at symbolism and, above all, the ‘it was only a dream’ idea are a convoluted and contrived way to get there. Even viewed psychoanalytically, it seems to be making a mountain out of a molehill; not, of course, that grief is nothing, but it seems less here than it might. The dream sequence comes across more as an idea for an opera than a dramatic necessity. That, at least, was what I emerged feeling, though I had felt more positively in Munich.

Paul, Brigitta, Chorus

Whatever my doubts, though, this was a justly ambitious, laudable project from ENO: a reasonably well-known twentieth-century opera, only staged twice previously in this country and never by this company, deserved its debut and clearly won new converts. Perhaps the fairest thing is to view the opera as a fragile flower, in need of great care and good fortune in cultivation; or, to turn it back on myself, to say that it may not ultimately be an opera for me.