When Erich Wolfgang Korngold completed his third opera, Die tote Stadt, in August 1920, he’d barely turned 23. Yet such was his reputation that what followed was practically a Europe-wide bidding war for rights to the première. The young composer had his pick of companies and conductors (the Vienna State Opera tried and failed). In the end – almost unprecedentedly – Die tote Stadt was launched on the same night in two cities simultaneously. Audiences in Hamburg and Cologne both erupted into applause, but Korngold, who could be in only one place, had chosen Hamburg – where he was so dazed by the response that Richard Strauss, who was present in the audience, had to remind him to go up and take his bow.
With Die tote Stadt, big moments always seem to come in twos. The opera’s story revolves around a double: the plot starts from the moment when a grieving young widower, Paul, encounters a woman who precisely resembles his dead wife, Marie. He finds a mirror of his pain in Bruges, the ‘dead city’ of the opera’s title – not today’s tourist honeypot, but the decaying port of the late 19th century, a bell-haunted ghost-city of empty streets and shimmering canals (think Don’t Look Now). And curiously enough, after receiving only one professional production in the UK in the 102 years since its première, Die tote Stadt is about to get two within the next 12 months. English National Opera is to present it (for the first time in the company’s history) in March next year. But ENO is pipped to the post this month by Longborough Festival Opera, the little company who could, famed for staging an ecstatically received Ring cycle in a home-made theatre outside Moreton-in-Marsh.
‘The idea of putting on Tote Stadt is as crazy as putting on the Ring cycle,’ says Justin Brown, who’s conducting the Longborough production. ‘In a sense, it’s crazier because no one knows it.’ Well, in Britain maybe. In central Europe it was one of the smash hits of the 1920s, and since Korngold’s postwar rediscovery (the Nazis drove the Jewish composer into exile, and erased his music from the repertoire) it’s made a powerful comeback, with Jonas Kaufmann, no less, singing the role of Paul in Munich shortly before the pandemic (watch the DVD if you can – he’ll break your heart).
Britain has been more resistant. When the Royal Opera staged the first – and so far, only – professional UK production in 2009, it encountered a lingering strain of critical sniffiness (something this listenable really shouldn’t be encouraged!) that already felt out of step with history. The Spectator, naturally, bucked received opinion. As early as 1976 Rodney Milnes, reviewing the first complete recording, identified Die tote Stadt’s ‘startlingly original writing for both voice and orchestra, damned good tunes, an acute sense of theatre, exuberance, vigour’. ‘If this is candy-floss,’ he concluded, ‘then it is spun from steel.’
Milnes nailed it (he usually did). Die tote Stadt is one of the most impetuously colourful scores of the 20th century. It makes Richard Strauss sound drab and Puccini understated: decked out with bells, keyboards and harps in much the way that Klimt applied gold leaf, its musical language embraces hints of Bartok and Szymanowski, as well as two yearning, indelibly hummable arias – ‘Marietta’s Lute Song’ and ‘Pierrot’s Tanzlied’ – that have been called the last truly great tunes in the history of German opera. Once listeners get past that macabre-sounding title and enter the streets of the dead city, it tends to be love at first hearing. ‘Wunderbar!’ cries Paul, to starbursts of sound, as Marietta (the mysterious doppelgänger for the dead Marie) makes her entrance, and I’ve never forgotten the first time I heard it, pacing around my student room with the stereo on full, head swimming with the sheer glory of the sound.
I suspect Martin Graham – Longborough’s founder and presiding spirit – experienced a similar bolt through the heart. For some years now he’s been buttonholing operagoers like the Ancient Mariner: ‘Do you know Die tote Stadt?’ And if there’s one thing that goes without saying at Longborough, it’s that Graham’s dreams – however implausible – have a way of becoming reality. It’s a risk, of course. Opera on this scale is never cheap, and rarely easy. ‘With this piece, you’re in unknown territory for most people. It’s fiendishly hard to play, fiendishly hard to sing,’ says Brown, who was adamant that, even in Longborough’s pocket-size theatre, there could be no compromise on the scale of the thing. Carmen Jakobi’s production will put the orchestra on stage, but in all other respects it’ll be a full staging. ‘I got a little bit tough with the company – no, we have to have this many strings, otherwise it just isn’t going to sound like Korngold. I think we’re using nine players less than Korngold’s original. And the original is humongous, so it still sounds wonderful.’
Plus, of course, you need the singers. Longborough’s Paul is the British tenor Peter Auty – once the boy-chorister in the film The Snowman, now a leading exponent of the big Italian romantic tenor roles. ‘It’s a bruiser. The first 15 minutes are extremely hard, full-on singing. I suppose the nearest thing that I’ve done would be Erik in Flying Dutchman – that’s the only German role I’ve really sung. I’ve probably jumped a whole lot of Wagner roles that I should have done first before tackling this, though it does have the bonus of being in a fairly small auditorium.’ Singers capable of performing roles of this difficulty don’t just sit by their phones waiting to be called, as Longborough discovered when their original Marie/Marietta (the two roles are traditionally sung by the same soprano – another of the opera’s doubles) became indisposed. At short notice, Longborough drew on its network of friends and managed to book Rachel Nicholls, the young British soprano who sang Brünnhilde in its first Ring cycle in 2013 and (coincidence again) at ENO just before Christmas.
So the stars seem to be aligning for Die tote Stadt, though a puritanical few will probably continue to ask if it’s really worth all this effort for an opera that’s still occasionally dismissed as kitsch. The sheer spectacle – physical and sonic – of this one-time blockbuster can feel overwhelming. But in the end, that bejewelled sound is not what you take away from Die tote Stadt. Fundamentally, it’s a tale of longing, loss and profound grief, expressed – by some miraculous paradox of art – through the surging, rapturous colours that came as naturally as breathing to a 22-year-old genius who sensed that he was writing his masterpiece. At the end of it, you’ve had every auditory faculty comprehensively ravished, and yet what lingers is an aching sadness. ‘I think most of us have experienced a split-up from a past partner, and found it very difficult to leave them behind,’ says Auty. ‘There’s an idea in the opera that someone who dies, dies twice. They die in reality; and then they start dying in your memory.’
How a comfortably off Viennese wunderkind like Korngold – even one who’d just lived through the first world war and the death of old Europe – had access to emotions that he could never possibly have experienced at first hand is still hard to explain in rational terms. But those emotions are certainly present in Die tote Stadt. They’re unignorable and for the creative teams (and hopefully the audiences) at Longborough and ENO, they’re universal enough to be worth exploring. Grief, nostalgia and the human capacity for self-delusion are all eternal. Perhaps they’re finally starting to transcend the complex, compelling history of an opera that has endured early success, political suppression and critical snobbery and still, somehow, won’t stay dead.
Die tote Stadt is at Longborough Festival Opera from 21 to 27 June and at English National Opera from 25 March to 8 April 2023.