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December 16, 2016

Best Twentieth Century Operas (5): Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Die tote Stadt (1920)

Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) is the last of the great fin-de-siecle Viennese operas, first performed in 1920 in Vienna and Hamburg. The city in the title refers not to Vienna, but to Bruges in Belgium, as the libretto written by Korngold with his father, the music critic Julius Korngold, was based on a major (but now forgotten) novel by the Belgian Francophone author Georges Rodenbach (1855-98). This book, entitled Bruges-la-Morte, is a melancholic story about an obsessive love over the grave: a man is obsessed with the memory of his deceased wife and tries to mold a dancer, who uncannily resembles her, after his wife, with tragic results (note that the same idea was later taken up in the film Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock!).

[Scene from the opera, 2015 Graz - Photo Wikipedia]

Bruges-La-Morte is the iconic Symbolist novel. The movement in poetry, music and the visual arts, developed by Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine, centered on the idea that the truth in art could only be represented indirectly (thus discarding Realism and Naturalism). This could be done by writing in a metaphorical and suggestive manner, thus endowing particular images or objects with symbolic meaning. It is an art which is elusive and shuns direct utterance. It seeks half-tones rather than strong colors. But it is also characterized by a certain mysticism and a preoccupation with death, with swans and lilies, and an obsession with woman's hair (as in the Symbolist opera Pelléas et Mélisande by Debussy, where Mélisande's abnormally long hair, longer than her whole figure, is fetishized). The same hair fetish occurs in Die tote Stadt (see below).

The initial setting is the same in both novel and opera. The main character is Hugues (called Paul in the opera), a young widower who, distraught at his wife's death several years before, has moved to Bruges. Bruges (in Flemish: Brugge), once the major trading city of Belgium (and today a bright tourist attraction), in the 19th century had become a dead town, dreaming of the past amid the mystic peace of its churches and cloisters, and for Hugues/Paul the desolate cityscape with its dark and stagnant canals symbolizes his own mood. There he sits brooding among the relics of his beloved dead wife (called Marie in the opera) – her clothes, her letters and portraits, and most importantly, a length of her long blond hair kept almost religiously in a crystal casket.

[Scene from the opera, 2015 Graz - Photo Wikipedia]

In this way, he has erected an altar of sorrow and remembrance to his wife. Hugues/Paul has no occupation and rarely leaves the house. His only activity is a daily walk through the deserted and dusky streets of the old town, under the shadows of the ancient walls, listening to the bells of the many churches, often longing himself for death, hoping to meet his beloved in a new life beyond the grave. It is a situation halfway between reality and dream. The memory of his wife monopolizes his every thought and deed. In fact, he is in the thralls of a morbid and unwholesome cult.

But then chance brings an ambulant opera troupe to the city, among whose members is a dancer named Jane Scott (Marietta in the opera), who bears an uncanny resemblance to his dead wife, especially as regards her long, yellow-gold hair. Hugues/Paul seeks contact with the dancer and is surprised to discover that even her voice is similar to that of his deceased wife. Confused, he transfers the feelings for his dead wife to the new Jane/Marietta, and dreams to renew an ideal union. He imagines that the dancer has been brought to him by the intervention of supernatural forces.

Here novel and opera libretto part company. In the novel, Hugues courts Jane and is briefly happy, although his romance with her is in fact scandalous (in the 19th c. operatic dancing girls were virtually prostitutes). She becomes his kept mistress, and he rents a room in the suburbs for her where he pays daily visits; he also has her give up her profession. But of course, no two people are similar and Hugues soon discovers that the character of the new woman is very different from that of his deceased partner: for one thing, being who she is, she is far coarser. She mocks him when he asks her to wear his dead wife's dresses, as these have become too old-fashioned. His infatuation also has become the scandal of the town and sets numerous tongues wagging. The final scene plays out in Hugues' house. An annual religious procession, the Procession of the Holy Blood, will make the rounds of Bruges and also pass by Hugues' windows, so Jane begs to be allowed to visit his house to watch the event. Jane comes for the first time to his house, and is interested in the portrait of his wife (“She looks like me”), without realizing what she is seeing. When finally she dares touch the precious coil of hair, just when the procession is passing, and jokingly winds it around her neck, Hugues in a frenzy strangles her.

[Paul and Marietta in a scene from the opera, 2015 Graz - Photo Wikipedia]

Perhaps because the novel was considered too scandalous for bourgeois sensibilities, in the opera the relation between Jane/Marietta and Hugues/Paul is presented as a vision, a dream brought about by Paul's ecstatic mood upon seeing a woman who looks like his dead wife. Although in his dream he sees her true character as she appears surrounded by her many lovers, she still manages to fascinate her weak admirer, conquering him with a beautiful Lute Song. When she later visits his home, full of the relics of his dead wife, she wants him to embrace her just at the moment when the religious procession (as in the novel) passes by. Paul is appalled at her lack of piety. Next Marietta snatches up the relic, the golden strand of the dead woman's hair, winds it around her neck, and begins to dance. Frantic with rage as Marietta desecrates what he holds most sacred, Paul flings himself upon her and strangles her with the strand of hair. Here the vision ends. Paul wakes up only to see Marietta stand in front of him - in reality, she has only now for the first time arrived at his house - but he sends her away as the vision has cured him of his infatuation. He even decides to leave Bruges, the dead city.

The opera consists of beautiful, elusive music and is the supreme masterwork of the then only 23-year old composer. Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) was an Austro-Hungarian composer who astonished the musical world as a composing wunderkind. Mahler proclaimed him a genius at age nine (!), after which he started lessons with Alexander von Zemlinsky. Korngold wrote orchestral music, piano music and chamber works, besides songs and operas.

Die tote Stadt was a great hit, and it made a triumphal tour around the world – until the Nazis forbade it as Jewish music, while the immediate postwar generations were only interested in twelve-tone music. The lavish Straussian music brings out the tension between sexual desire and ideal aspiration, decay and death, and shifts from gloomy orchestral interludes to high-soaring song.

Forced out of Austria by the rise of Nazism, in 1934 Korngold moved to Hollywood where he became a pioneer in composing film scores - along with  Max Steiner and Alfred Newman, he is one of the founders of film music. His serious music (which includes a beautiful Violin Concerto) was considered out of vogue at the time he died, but is now experiencing a reawakening of interest, and Die tote Stadt is also again staged in opera houses today.

The opera Die tote Stadt by Erich Korngold is available on DVD (Dynamic) with Stefan Vinke as Paul and Solveig Kringelborn as Marietta/Marie, the Orchestra e Coro del Teatro La Fenice with Eliahu Inbal as conductor and choreography by Pierre Luigi Pizzi.

Twentieth Century Opera: (1) Pelléas et Mélisande by Debussy (2) Salome by Strauss (3) Die Gezeichneten by Schreker (4) Der Zwerg by Zemlinsky (5) Die tote Stadt by Korngold (6) Oedipus Rex by Stravinsky (7)