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Will the long-awaited revival of Korngold's best opera be applauded or panned? Plus, why a recession in tenors might not be a bad thing

By Martin Kettle   December 2008

When a composer’s music languishes in obscurity for years, there is generally a good reason—and perhaps such a reason explains why the often predicted re-emergence of Erich Wolfgang Korngold never quite happens. But things may at last be about to change, at least in this country. Korngold’s most dazzling work is to get its long delayed first British staging.
Today, Korngold is mainly remembered for two reasons. First, he is the Oscar-winning composer of 18 Warner Brothers movie scores—notably for films starring Errol Flynn—written in Hollywood after his exile from Vienna in 1935. Second, he is music’s most remarkable child prodigy since Mendelssohn. Mahler pronounced the young Korngold “a genius, a genius”; Strauss said he listened to him with awe; Puccini claimed he possessed twice as much talent as he needed.

Yet Korngold should be known for a third reason: as the composer of the opera Die tote Stadt. Written in 1920 when he was only 23, it was an overnight sensation in the German-speaking world. Dozens of performances were mounted across Austria and Germany during its first decade. It was in the repertoire of legendary conductors, including Otto Klemperer (who gave one of the simultaneous premieres), George Szell (who conducted it with Lotte Lehmann and Richard Tauber in the principal roles) and Hans Knappertsbusch.

Korngold’s wave of popularity was not based on Die tote Stadt alone. There were orchestral and chamber works, and other operas too—including the one he thought was his best, Das Wunder der Heliane, premiered under Bruno Walter in 1927. But Korngold was Jewish and his success came to a sudden halt with the rise of the Nazis. Die tote Stadt quickly fell out of sight.

The opera still surfaces occasionally in Germany and Austria. But it is now the subject of a mini-revival of interest around the operatic world, triggered by its use in the soundtrack of the Coen brothers’ cult movie The Big Lebowski (1998) and, more substantially, Willi Decker’s Salzburg Festival production in 2004. Decker’s version has been seen in Vienna and Barcelona, and has just finished a run in San Francisco. In January 2009, 89 years after the world premiere, Covent Garden will give the opera its first British staging (aside from Kensington Opera’s 1996 concert performance).

Will it have been worth the wait? Not having seen Decker’s staging, I can’t say. But Die tote Stadt is at the very least an important curiosity, and in my view, a lot more than that. Along with Puccini’s Turandot, it is the last enduring achievement of late romantic grand opera. Like Turandot, it is opulently scored for a large orchestra and requires singers of exceptional technique and stamina. Unlike Turandot, however, Die tote Stadt seems almost uncannily aware of the fact that it marks the end of an era—astonishingly so, given Korngold’s age when he wrote it.

It’s a serious piece, an adaptation of Georges Rodenbach’s late 19th-century symbolist novel Bruges-la-morte. The dead city of the title is a metaphor for the trauma suffered by the opera’s central character, Paul, who becomes convinced that a young woman is in fact his dead love, Marie. When Paul dreams of killing the young woman, he finally grasps that he must not dwell in the past and has to leave the city of death. In some respects, Die tote Stadt is a gender-reversed version of the film Truly, Madly, Deeply, which explores a woman’s relationship with her partner’s ghost.

This struggle to shake off the power of death and return to the living world was a particularly potent theme in the aftermath of the first world war. Yet the anguished sense of loss that permeates Die tote Stadt—notably in its most famous duet—simultaneously signals the impossibility of living in the artistic past too. Paul’s love for Marie reflects Korngold’s own immersion in a late romantic style whose days were clearly numbered by 1920. Korngold’s precocious awareness that late romanticism could not be brought back to life any more than Marie lends Die tote Stadt a poignancy that far transcends its obvious structural weaknesses.

Those of us who admire this strange work need to be aware that pitching it too high risks exposing it to assault from modernist critics. The critical drubbing meted out to Vladimir Jurowski’s concert performance of Das Wunder der Heliane in 2007, to mark the 50th anniversary of Korngold’s death, still hurts. I fear Die tote Stadt will also be derided for its bombast and its gothic creepiness. All the same, it is an important opera, maybe even a great one, and Covent Garden deserves immense credit for bringing it back from the dead.

Every recession has a silver lining

Is there a recession in tenors? The deaths of Luciano Pavarotti and Giuseppe di Stefano, and the recognition that Placido Domingo cannot continue forever, have led many to ask where their successors in the Italian lyric roles will come from. Similar distress calls can be heard in the Wagnerian tenor market, where it is hard to find anyone capable of stepping into the shoes of Siegfried Jerusalem or René Kollo.

Yet, if you know where to look, there are silver linings in all recessions. We may be short of Verdi and Wagner tenors, but Juan Diego Flórez’s recent appearances in Britain are a reminder that Rossini singing is going through a golden age. In the Bach and Handel field, Mark Padmore is putting earlier exponents to shame, while Ian Bostridge is singing Britten’s tenor roles in revelatory new ways. All three have much lighter voices than the giants of the past, but they have opened up a repertoire that was barely ever performed in the age of can belto.

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