It was only under pressure from several of my Opera in Depth Zoom students that I didn't spend a whole term on Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, covering it in a mere seven lectures and saving three for Korngold's Die tote Stadt (which, as The Dead City, opens at ENO this coming Saturday*). Ultimately, I'm glad I did, because it introduced me to one of the most moving and real productions of any opera I've seen, Simon Stone's for the Bavarian State Opera with dream casting in Jonas Kaufmann as Paul (never better) and Marlis Petersen as Marietta/Marie, and simply phenomenal conducting by Kirill Petrenko.
Everything's been topsy-turvy in my acquaintance with this peculiar opera. I should have seen it in Vienna, but the baritone was ill, so they replaced it with L'elisir d'amore (and we went instead to see a somewhat crapulous Otto Schenk in an all-male production of Wilde's Bunbury, oder wie wichtig ist est Ernst zu sein - novelty value, but poor, we left at the interval). I myself was ill during the Royal Opera run. I'd only half-listened to the Leinsdorf recording, and before the classes read Georges Rodenbach's Bruges-la-Morte in a translation by Mike Mitchell, approaching the opera from the wrong end, as it turned out.
Decadent, melancholy Bruges is the protagonist in the book, twinned in the Dedalus edition with Rodenbach's essay The Death Throes of Towns, with which it shares so many phrases and images. 'How moving she is in this centuries-old consumption, in which the town stricken with death spits out one by one her stones - as if from her lungs - and especially moving on this autumnal November morning, beneath a sky whose pallor is in perfect accord with her own!' It chimes - bells playing a crucial role, incidentally - with the main character of the novel, Hugues, who 'needed a dead town to correspond to his dead wife...He needed infinite silence and an existence that was so monotonous it almost failed to give him a sense of belief'. (Portrait of Rodenbach below with Bruges in the background by Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer).
Into this buried-barely alive-existence comes Jane, a dancer in the local production of Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable, who seems to bear a direct resemblance to the unnamed wife. The novel isn't in the first person, but nearly everything is seen from the obsessive widower's perspective, and the living woman's character resides only in her responses. I came eventually to see that Korngold and his critic father, disguised librettists of the opera, don't really care much for characterising Bruges - which the composer may or may not have visited as a teenager - or finding water music. But the operatic take on the renamed Jane, Marietta to Marie the dead wife, is marvellous and modern: a feminist figure of immense vitality, embodying the spirit of life as dance (Petersen seen as Marietta below in Stone's production with her fellow players in an intermezzo that starts out like the one in Ariadne auf Naxos but eventually turns sinister).
Stone capitalises on this, as he outlines in a booklet interview. He says he wants to avoid the 'old fashioned and conservative interpretation' of Marietta as wilfully tormenting Paul (which seems to be the case in the novel, where the character is called Hugues). Instead, Stone declares,
Marietta is a self-confident, happy, affectionate, freedom-loving, adventurous, open-minded woman. And it's exactly this woman whom Paul needed to come into his life and drag him out of his coccoon of sorrow, a dead person whom he had completely under his control. He packed her life into boxes and catalogued it. The desire for control is an instinct that all men carry within themselves and which lead to tension in relationships. Paul is an extreme example of this. So, Marietta is the most challenging of polar opposites to Paul that you could imagine.
We believe in Paul's obsession and Marietta's vitality almost from the start in this production. And we witness Marietta's despair in trying to bring Paul back to life and love that she feels for him - that he, clearly, reciprocates, if only he could break away from his control of the dead wife.
Is this only a partial vision? In relation to the original story, yes; in terms of Korngold's wish to have his cake and eat it, the solution seems to me totally engaging and moving. The first two acts, after all, end with dancing vibrancy, while at the end of the third the Korngolds, having dispensed with the actual ending of Rodenbach's bleak novel, waken Paul from his nightmare and suggest a brighter future, though Stone points out in the interview that it will be a tough one. I now understand why there's less melancholy in this opera than I originally wanted - Korngold, after all, seems to have been very exuberant in his early 20s - although a Bruges-like dankness hangs around Paul's dialogue with the vision of Marie, which Stone, and Petersen's stunning transformation, make all too plausible.
Quite apart from the utterly involving theatrical experience, we witness two singers tackling roles of superhuman difficulty - the tenor especially needs massive stamina to sing so often in the middle to upper reaches of his voice - without drawing attention to the fact. As one of my students pointed out, she'd only seen productions before this where the strain is in the tenor's voice, while here that never happens with Kaufmann, so all the tension can go into the acting. And Petersen has no hard edges to her voice, so we get none of the usual dramatic-soprano hysteria and just total, lovable energy (her Marietta pictured below at the start of Pierrot's Song in Act 2, so well sung by baritone Andrzej Filończyk, who incarnates both Paul's friend Frank and the troupe player Fritz).
Leinsdorf's recording made me feel that the score is too splashy, with way too much celesta, piano and harp, too many voice-smothering outbursts; there's none of that from the amazing Petrenko, who makes it sound like a masterpiece. Perhaps it is; I wonder what the ENO production will tell us. But one thing's for sure - these DVDs should be an essential part of anyone's opera collection.
More on the Rosenkavalier experience anon (what guests we had: Felicity Lott and John Tomlinson together for the final session, and in separate Zooms, Richard Jones and his movement directer/choreographer Sarah Fahie, Peter Rose, Paula Murrihy and Fergus Sheil while they were rehearsing for the superlative Irish National Opera production). What it does seem pertinent to mention in connection with Die tote Stadt is my first acquaintance with the great Irish writer Sebastian Barry in his most recent novel, Old God's Time. So seductive is the prose in the early chapters that you might be lulled - I was - into thinking this is a poetic reflection on the past by a retired detective in his Dalkey retreat. What's to tell about the past? In fact this turns out to be another high drama about lacerating grief - without giving too much away, it turns out that Tom Kettle is a veritable job in his past afflictions - bound in with a surprising element of thriller.
I'll say no more; read it, and meanwhile I'll get hold of other Barrys once I've worked my way through Alan Hollinghurst's The Folding Star - more essential set-in-Bruges reading to follow Rodenbach (Hollinghust provides a fine introduction to the English translation of Bruges-la-Morte.
Next term's Opera in Depth choices, by the way, are Handel's Serse - inspired by the peerlessly cast English Concert performance last yeat in St Martin-in-the-Fields, due for release very soon - and (because I'll spend three rather than the usual five classes on that), a Poulenc survey over seven Mondays: one class apiece on La voix humaine and Les mamelles de Tirésias, triumphs of Glyndebourne's 2022 season, and then five on Dialogues Des Carmélites, due this year. Leave a message with your email (I won't publish it but I'll get back to you) if you're interested in joining us - which, thanks to Zoom, you can do from anywhere in the world, and claim videos of any classes you can't make live.
*26/3 Review now up on theartsdesk. Yes, Stone's production spoiled me - though Miskimmon's was far from bad.