Korngold, Die Tote Stadt
For many years, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s opera Die Tote Stadt has been on my list of operas I have wanted to see but never have the chance. Great music, but too-rarely performed. This scheduling made for a nice trip out to Innsbruck’s Landestheater.
Puccini and Mahler both had a high regard for young Korngold’s innate talent. Korngold composed he opera in 1916, when he was only 19, but although employing twentieth-century harmonics the opera is in many ways a throwback, marking an end to an era that was crashing down around him in World War One Vienna. Korngold did not live up to his potential after the war, despite a few short-lived successes. When the Germans banned his music after 1933, he moved to Hollywood and eventually won two Oscars for movie scores. Still, his concert and stage music reached a level of sophistication which remains under-appreciated to this day.
The Landestheater offered a very dramatic cast. Wolfgang Schwaninger as the male lead, Paul, and Wagnerian baritone Joachim Seipp as Frank, both of whom sang in strong voice providing forceful portrayals of their roles. Anna Maria Dur, as Brigitte, also matched the two male roles, but as the female lead, Jennifer Maines as Marietta and Marie’s ghost, lacked the same strength of voice, accurate pitch, or acting ability, just getting through the role with a bare level of competence. While not bad for a provincial theater environment, she clearly underperformed her colleagues. Alexander Rumpf conducted the Tyrol Symphony Orchestra in the pit.
Once again, however, a German director let everyone else down with a senseless staging. Ernö Weil tried to keep things simple, which would not be bad for a psycho-drama, but rather than allowing this acting cast to then develop their roles, he became silly and clichéd. Korngold’s opera can take many interpretations, but as a dream within a dream (possibly within another dream), it depends entirely on complex psychology. Paul’s wife has died at a young age, and the devastated man needs to overcome his obsessive mourning. Weil seems only to have understood the sexual level, and treated us to a display of supposedly-erotic (although in a German sort of way) quasi-pornographic overdrive, neither subtle nor nuanced. If Weil could not capture, or perhaps even understand, the drama, then I guess he supposed that sex sells. The characters kept their clothes on, but the pseudo-eroticism was blatant – no more so than during the second act, when some dancers, presumably representing ghosts or spirits, pranced, slithered, and cavorted all over stage in what appeared to be costumes (for lack of a better word) made out of plastic refrigerator wrap highlighting sexual organs. In the third act, veering away from the sexual, Weil projected black and white film onto a scrim showing scenes from a church service, Jesus on a cross, and close-ups of the character Paul’s face – presumably this was meant to represent yet another level of Paul’s dreams, but since it did not match the rest of the staging, it came across as out-of-place and demonstrative of a lack of originality or understanding on Weil’s part. On the whole, the staging could have been much worse, but because the overall concept was simple it did not overwhelm the performance. But it added nothing to the understanding of this work. The cast tried its best to ignore the nonsense and just act, but the role of the director is to enhance their ability to do so, not to make acting more difficult. Someone really needs to slap a ban on German opera directors until they sort themselves out up there.