For a short opera (just under two hours of music, when trimmed down to the version used at Longborough Festival) and for such a youthful work (Korngold was just 23 at its premiere), Die tote Stadt packs an awful lot of psychological punch and deals with a big set of issues. How to mourn the loss of a loved one? Are there limits to proper grief? Is it a betrayal of the departed to continue to live and love? And anyway, when it comes to love, how to reconcile Apollonian sanctity with Dionysian lust?

Rachel Nicholls (Marie)
© Matthew Williams-Ellis

The dead city of the title is gloomy, pious Bruges, which contains the even gloomier apartment of Paul, who has lost his wife Marie and has built a shrine to her memory. But then, in the streets just before the opera starts, Paul has seen Marietta, a dancer who is the spitting image of Marie. He persuades himself that his wife has returned to life: the opera charts his relationship with Marietta, both in real life and in his increasingly fevered dreams.

Benson Wilson (Frank) and Peter Auty (Paul)
© Matthew Williams-Ellis

Carmen Jakobi’s production is deceptively simple and exceptionally effective. The simplicity comes from a straightforward setting (Marie’s shrine is built from candles and a giant picture frame, with smaller photo frames festooning the rest of Nate Gibson’s set) and from a refusal to play Freudian tricks on the audience, something which must always be tempting in this opera given Korngold’s Viennese upbringing. What makes it deceptive, is that there is so much attention to fine detail. The raised corridor from the shrine to Paul’s bedroom doubles as a canal-side bridge for the Act 2 dream sequence, made Venetian by immediately recognisable commedia dell’arte costumes. Jakobi and movement director Elaine Brown direct the acting with millimetre precision, the movement around stage each of the seven strong cast always calibrated to shed light on Paul’s mental state. (By the way, the programme calls this production “semi-staged” – I have no idea where the “semi-” comes from).

Rachel Nicholls (Marietta) and Benson Wilson (Fritz/Pierrot)
© Matthew Williams-Ellis

From the moment she stepped on stage as Marietta, Rachel Nicholls was a force of nature, a gale of vivacity blasting into Paul’s slough of despond. What makes the role so demanding is how quickly and often the singer has to change personality: not only is there the need to play the oh-so-pure Marie but Marietta herself cartwheels at a dizzying pace between quizzical, alluring, carefree, pensive, faux demure, furious. Nicholls was dramatically superb and vocally excellent in every register and mood, whether lyrical or hard-hitting. And there must be very few sopranos who could have done all of that while carrying off with aplomb her exotic dancer’s costume (99% straps) in Act 2 and producing such elegance of hand movement. You simply couldn’t take your eyes or ears off her.

Peter Auty was an eloquent, persuasive, powerful Paul, drawing us into his tortured soul and prompting extreme empathy. Vocally, his tenor was strong in the middle and low registers; the top notes, unfortunately, sounded strained and abrasive, which detracted from the total performance. 

Alexander Sprague, Lee David Bowen, Luci Briginshaw and Stephanie Windsor-Lewis
© Matthew WIlliams-Ellis

The ensemble roles were strongly preformed, with Benson Wilson a notably mellifluous baritone as Paul’s friend Frank, doubled with Marietta’s friend Fritz who is the Pierrot in her dance troupe.

One’s first reaction to Korngold’s score can be that it sounds too much like early Hollywood, which requires a short pause while you remember that the sound of early Hollywood was largely created by Korngold himself a decade or two after Die tote Stadt was composed. There’s an unerring feel for melody and an ability to produce sweeping, dramatic moments, as well as a fondness for old-time Viennese schmaltz (which is completely conscious – the characters even talk about wanting a nostalgic song). Justin Brown and the orchestra gave a pretty full-throated account of it all while, with a few exceptions, managing to allow enough room for us to hear the singers. It’s not the subtlest orchestral score you’ll ever hear in an opera, but it is still highly enjoyable.

Rachel Nicholls (Marietta)
© Matthew Williams-Ellis

By the end of the opera, the fidelity of Paul’s friend Frank and housekeeper Brigitta have helped him to escape his delusions and nightmares, and thus ends a story which is as persuasive at exploring its main character’s psychology as any opera I’ve seen.

Unfortunately, my having missed the premiere due to Covid-19, this review is of the last performance in the run. I can only hope that Longborough revive the production in future.