This formidable opera, first performed in Hamburg in 1920 when Korngold was 23, admittedly created its own problems from the start. It was the era of Cocteau’s “music in which I can live like a house”, music to line the walls. If you lined the walls with Die Stadt tote (the ghost town – for some reason Bruges) it would keep you up at night or give you nightmares. And in fact, a nightmare of the most violent and psychotic variety forms its climactic episode and its brightest of several fascinating confrontations.
Paul, the hero, has recently lost his young wife and is mentally imprisoned by her memories, by her portrait (in Carmen Jakobi’s deeply sensitive production, an entire gallery of portraits in a house furnished with empty picture frames), and by a lock of his hair, which he keeps under a bell jar like a communion wafer. But one day, he meets another girl who looks so much like his dead Marie that he first imagines it’s her, then – when this Marietta turns out to be a frivolous and libertine member of a troupe of actors – recognizes that she is actually trying to destroy his imaginary love and bring it back to reality. In the nightmarish scene of the final act, after they have made love, she taunts him with Marie’s lock of hair and he, furious, strangles her with it. But the bad dream is exposed (also to the public), and Marietta reappears, alive and well, then abandons Paul to his other empty dream and the cold truth.
Korngold’s treatment of this subject has obvious echoes of pre-war expressionism, of Strauss’s expression. Electra and Schoenberg Erwartung especially. Musically, although there are quasi-atonal pages, it owes above all to Strauss; his discourse is essentially Straussian. Musical horrors alternate with episodes of a warm and lyrical tone that sometimes even remind Ariadne in Naxos, but with digressions which show that Korngold also knew his Puccini. And Ariadne is also plundered for aspects of dramaturgy; its street actors (picture below)who have a bit too long scene in the middle of act 2, are obviously cousins of Strauss the comedy crew. Marietta is Zerbinetta with a more subtle, less flashy brain and defining air.That said, Korngold’s music is entirely his own and an authentic evolution along post-romantic lines. He could have paved the way for modern music if modernism itself had not decreed otherwise. His technical prowess is amazing; his handling of a huge orchestra (skillfully reduced here by Leonard Eröd), and especially his writing for voice (if sometimes excessively arduous) and his dramatic rhythm are equally remarkable. We are carried away by the pure energy of the music, by its inventive richness, and above all by its psychological conviction. They are living characters with real problems. In the meantime, the iconic meaning of 1920 is inescapable: bury your dead and face the world as you find it. Whether Korngold followed this precept in his music is, of course, a matter of debate.
The staging by Carmen Jakobi (designer Nate Gibson) was originally meant to be semi-staged, and it retains something of the discretion that goes with this genre. The staging is crisp and precise, and largely devoid of setback ‘ideas’, though I am left slightly taken aback by the procession of nuns strolling through the final act – an echo perhaps of Meyerbeer Robert the devilin which Marietta is, she tells us, about to appear as a dancer (and Meyerbeer’s nuns too, strangely, rise from the grave and dance).
Above all, the cast is almost uniformly excellent. Rachel Nicholls, who arrives late as Marietta, sings it with terrific verve, perhaps slightly exaggerating the flibbertigibbet at first, but beautifully capturing the complexity of the character as she battles Paul’s inscrutable delusions. Peter Auty also finds true neurosis in Paul’s nature, singing with remarkable stamina and athleticism a part that would bring most tenors to their knees. The interaction of these two, which is at the heart of the work, has always moved me. But it must be said that the best, purest singing, as such, came from Stephanie Windsor-Lewis in the not quite small nor quite large part of housekeeper Brigitta (picture below with Benson Wilson as Frank), who begins the work as Strauss’ Marschallin reduced to service, but then more or less disappears from the opera.The street musicians (Luci Briginshaw, Benson Wilson, Alexander Sprague and Lee David Bowen) go on perhaps too long but are good enough to cover in the composer’s footsteps. They move well on this tight stage (movement by Elaine Brown), and sing brilliantly, and Wilson, as Pierrot, has perhaps the prettiest song in the whole work, if not exactly the prettiest voice. But his Frank (Paul’s friend) is a good foil, vocally robust, a sensitive presence until he himself falls in love with Marietta and goes out with Paul.
Justin Brown conducts this score, all in all, complex and difficult, with superb mastery, and with great overall precision between orchestra and stage. This is a significant event and a big feather in Longborough’s already thick hat.