Die tote Stadt
|Erich Wolfgang Korngold|
Die tote Stadt (German for The Dead City) is an opera in three acts by Erich Wolfgang Korngold to a libretto by Paul Schott, a collective pseudonym for the composer and his father, Julius Korngold; it is based on the 1903 translation by Friedrich von Oppeln-Bronikowski of the 1892 novel Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach.
When Die tote Stadt had its premiere on December 4, 1920, Korngold was just 23 years old with two short one-act operas, Der Ring des Polykrates and Violanta, already to his name. The success of these earlier works was so great that Die tote Stadt was subject to a fierce competition among German theatres for the right to the world premiere. In the end, an unusual double premiere was arranged and the opera opened simultaneously at the Stadttheater Hamburg and Cologne. In Cologne, the conductor was Otto Klemperer, and his wife Johanna Geisler (de) sang Marietta. In Hamburg, Korngold himself was in the theatre, and the conductor was Egor Pollak. The opera's theme of overcoming the loss of a loved one resonated with contemporary audiences of the 1920s who had just come through the trauma and grief of World War I, and this undoubtedly fueled the work's popularity.
Die tote Stadt was one of the greatest hits of the 1920s. Within two years of its premiere it had circled the globe, including several performances at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
But the work was banned by the Nazi régime because of Korngold's Jewish ancestry and after World War II it fell into obscurity. In recent years, however, the work has enjoyed notable revivals, among others at the Theater Bonn, the Royal Opera House, the San Francisco Opera and at the Vienna State Opera.
The opera received its French premiere in a concert performance in 1982 at the Paris Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. The first French staged performance was in April 2001 in Strasbourg under the baton of Jan Latham-Koenig with Torsten Kerl (Paul) and Angela Denoke (Marietta).
The opera received its UK premiere on 14 January 1996 in a concert performance by the Kensington Symphony Orchestra conducted by Russell Keable at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, with Ian Caley (Paul) and Christine Teare (Marie/Marietta). The first UK staged performance was on 27 January 2009 at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
|Role||Voice type||Premiere cast in Hamburg,
4 December 1920,
(Conductor: Egon Pollak)
|Premiere cast in Cologne,
4 December 1920,
(Conductor: Otto Klemperer)
|Paul/Gaston/Victorin/Albert||tenor||Richard Schubert||Karl Schröder|
|Marie/Marietta||soprano||Annie Münchow||Joanna Klemperer|
|Hariette/Juliette||soprano||Maria Jeritza||Joanna Klemperer|
|Brigitta/Lucienne||mezzo-soprano||Maria Olszewska||Katherina Rohr|
|Frank-Fritz||baritone||Josef Degler||Karl Renner|
|Chorus: party goers|
- Place: Bruges, Belgium
- Time: End of 19th century
When the opera opens, Paul, a younger middle-class man whose young wife, Marie, has recently died, cannot come to terms with the sad reality of her death. He keeps a “Temple of Memories” in her honor, including paintings, photographs and a lock of her hair. When his friend Frank pays him a visit at his house and urges him to honor Marie by moving on with his life, Paul flies into a rant, and insists that Marie “still lives.” He tells Frank that he has met a woman on the streets of Bruges who exactly resembles Marie (indeed, Paul thinks that it is Marie) and invited her back to his home.
Soon, the woman, Marietta, a young and beautiful dancer, appears for her rendezvous with Paul. They talk, she is put off by his odd behavior, but persists in trying to interest him in her charms—she sings and dances seductively, but eventually gets bored and leaves. Paul meanwhile is driven to a state of extreme anxiety.
Torn between his loyalty to Marie and his interest in Marietta he collapses into a chair and begins to hallucinate. He sees Marie's ghost step out of her portrait and urge him not to forget her, but then the vision of Marie changes and tells Paul to go and move on with his life.
After a series of visions in which his pursuit of Marietta alienates him from all his remaining friends, the act ends with Marietta finally overcoming his resistance and leading him offstage locked in a passionate embrace. All this takes place in Paul's imagination.
Paul's vision continues. Back in his house, living with Marietta, he quarrels with her. She gets fed up with his quirks and continuing obsession with Marie and starts to taunt him by dancing seductively while stroking his dead wife's hair. In a rage, Paul grabs the lock of hair and strangles Marietta. Holding her dead body he exclaims “Now she is exactly like Marie.” Then he snaps out of his dream. Astonished that Marietta's body is nowhere to be found, he has barely had time to collect his thoughts when his maid informs him that Marietta has come back to pick up her umbrella which she left in the house when she departed a few minutes ago. With the shock of the traumatic dream still fresh in his mind, Paul finally resolves to leave Bruges, let his dead wife rest in peace, and continue his life. In a touching conclusion, with his friend Frank at his side, he vows to start his life anew and slowly leaves behind his house and his “Temple of Memories,” for the last time.
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Korngold's score shows the influence of both Richard Strauss and Giacomo Puccini, in the rich, detailed scoring, and soaring bel canto vocal writing respectively. He uses a huge Strauss-sized orchestra, but fills Die tote Stadt with an abundance of gorgeous and memorable melodies à la Puccini. The two most famous excerpts from the opera are "Glück das mir verblieb" (also known as Mariettas Lied – in the opera's context a duet for tenor and soprano but usually presented in concert as a soprano aria) – and the aria for baritone, "Tanzlied des Pierrots".
On the whole, the music is consistently of very high quality, certainly at the level of many more frequently performed Strauss operas. The most likely reason for the opera's neglect is the extreme difficulty of the two lead roles, Paul and Marietta.
A tenor who would attempt the part of Paul must have the stamina to stay on stage and sing almost constantly for two hours over a gigantic orchestra. But unlike Wagner's tenor parts, which demand great stamina but not many high notes, the role of Paul in Die Tote Stadt is filled with many high B-flats and A-naturals, making the part nearly impossible to cast. Korngold considered Richard Tauber as 'my ideal Paul'. Tauber sang the role in Dresden, Frankfurt, Chemnitz, Vienna and Berlin. Well-known Pauls have included James King and René Kollo.
The high tessitura of Marietta's demanding role could probably be navigated by any soprano who sings the Empress in Strauss' Die Frau ohne Schatten. Among singers who have essayed the role in recent years are Carol Neblett and Nancy Shade, who alternated in the role at the New York City Opera, in 1975. The former, in fact, recorded it the same year for RCA. In 1983, Karan Armstrong performed the role in Berlin.
- 1924: Among historic recordings are three sides made for Odeon Records by Lotte Lehmann, Richard Tauber and George Szell soon after the Berlin premiere in April 1924. Maria Jeritza and Maria Nemeth, both involved in early performances of the opera, have also left recordings of the Lute Song, while Karl Hammes and Richard Mayr, among the first to sing Fritz, recorded the Pierrotlied.
- 1952: Munich release, available from Opera Today which includes Maud Cunitz and Karl Friedrich, Fritz Lehmann conducting.
- 1975: RCA, with Carol Neblett, René Kollo, Hermann Prey, and Benjamin Luxon, conducted by Erich Leinsdorf (RCA CD #87767(2)).
- 1983: Deutsche Oper Berlin, with James King, Karan Armstrong, and William Murray, conducted by Heinrich Hollreiser, and directed by Götz Friedrich (ArtHaus Musik 101 656).
- 2009: Sebastian Weigle and the Frankfurter Opern- und Museumsorchester recorded the opera live in November 2009 for Oehms Classics.
In other media
(These films used "Glück das mir verblieb")
- Aria (1987, directed by Bruce Beresford)
- Slaves of New York (1989, directed by James Ivory)
- The Big Lebowski (1998, directed by Joel and Ethan Coen)
- A Late Quartet (2012, directed by Yaron Zilberman)
- List of recent and planned performances of Die tote Stadt at Operabase
- Performances of Die tote Stadt found at G. Casaglia almanac; retrieved 6 January 2009
- Palmer, Grove online
- Die tote Stadt, Opera Today site with synopsis and MP3 recording (there it is said to be a live performance, but no trace of auditorium noise or applause can be heard)
- Palmer, Christopher, "Erich Wolfgang Korngold", Die tote Stadt, Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Opera) (Accessed May 4, 2007) (subscription required)
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