This week’s Recording of the Week is a DVD release by Arthaus Musik of the Deutsche Oper of Berlin’s 1983 production of Erich Korngold’s (1897-1957) Die Tote Stadt. The video was shot in the theater, but without an audience allowing for  TV values that would not have been then possible were the recording been made during a regular performance.

I was in Berlin during the 1983 run of this production and had tickets for one its performances. When I showed up at the opera house Berlioz’ The Damnation of Faust had been substituted for the Korngold. No explanation for the change was given. So was a 30 year interval to see this production worth the wait? — Yes. I suspect the change was due to the indisposition of one of the principals. The opera is so infrequently done that there likely was no cover.

The opera was written in 1920 when Korngold was only 23 years old. It was simultaneously premiered in both Hamburg and Cologne. It was a great success and was widely performed in the 20s. Both Puccini and Richard Strauss were said to greatly admire it. It received its American premiere at the Met on November 19, 1921 where it served as Maria Jeritza’s Met debut. It vanished from the Met’s repertory after 12 performances. The Nazis banned it because Korngold was Jewish.

The libretto was adapted from George Rodenbach’s 1892  symbolist novel Bruges-la-Morte by the composer and his father Julius Korngold. They used the pen name Paul Schott – Sigmund Freud would have been a better choice given the psychiatric handbook which is the libretto. Of course, Freud and the Korngolds (father and son) were all living in the same city at the same time. The story is that of Paul a man obsessed with the loss of his wife Marie. The action alternates between reality and Paul’s delirium. Until the story is over the viewer can’t tell which is which. The musical idiom is that of Strauss up to the time of Die Frau ohne Schatten which was first performed just a year before Die Tote Stadt. Musical expressionism was already losing currency which partly explains the neglect that the work has received. Except for two terrific tunes the opera is mainly carried by the orchestra. The fluency of Korngold’s orchestration is dazzling. It’s easy to see why he revolutionized Hollywood’s movie music after his involuntary move to America.

Another reason for the infrequency of its staging is that it requires a heldentenor as Paul who also can sing the opera’s big hit tune which needs a lyric tenor capable of great line and vocal beauty. For almost the entire opera Paul is  sending vocal thunderbolts into the audience. The part’s demands on the tenor are extraordinary. In this recording the late James King, at the time of this performance near the end of his career, is outstanding as the deranged lover.

Fellow American Karen Armstrong, married to the director of this staging Götz Friedrich, also is impressive as the dancer, Marietta, who resembles the dead Marie and is her apparition. It’s hard for a 41 year old singer to look and move like a 20 year old dancer especially when a TV camera is aimed directly at you. Nevertheless, she manages to sing and move convincingly.

Most opera lovers are familiar with the piece’s beautiful tune “Glück, Das Mir Verblieb” which is sung by both the soprano and tenor in the first and third acts. You can go here to listen to an augmented soprano version as well as the tenor part which ends the opera. The opera also has a fine song for the baritone who sings two roles – Frank, Paul’s friend and rival and Fritz, who sings the second act aria Mein sehnen mein wähnen. The baritone is William Murray from the Berlin production.

The Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper Berlin is brilliantly conducted by Heinrich Hollreiser. This video is highly recommended.  Friedrich’s direction is very effective. Though not a word of the libretto was changed he concludes the opera with a completely different ending from Korngold’s original. His take on how things end is nevertheless in keeping with the opera’s general mood of mental disturbance. After 90 years the opera deserves another effort from the Met, especially as they’re currently wasting their time with another staging of a fourth rate opera- Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini.

Die Tote Stadt cover