Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s music is being played with exponentially increasing frequency. This past Spring La Scala mounted a production of the composer’s most well known opera Die Tote Stadt. It featured Klaus Florian Vogt and Asmik Grigorian in the two leading roles. In my view the former displayed an undersized tenor for what is one of the most demanding roles in the repertory.
Today the Bavarian State Opera streamed the first performance of its new production of Korngold’s youthful work; he was 23 at the time of its premiere. The company had Jonas Kaufmann as the overly bereft widower, Paul. Now 50 years old, Kaufmann’s already dark voice has further darkened to the point where he’s no longer a spinto, but rather a dramatic tenor – not a heldentenor, but an Italianate singer in the mold of Mario Del Monaco, only with subtlety as well as power. The dual soprano role of Marie/Mariette was performed by Marlis Petersen. The work’s other dual role, Frank/Fritz, was sung by the Polish baritone Andrzej Filonczyk. A synopsis of the story is here.
While there are three leading roles, the work’s success depends on the tenor and the orchestra. While light voiced tenors have performed Paul, eg Richard Tauber and Florian Vogt (a lyric tenor posing as a heldentenor), the role requires a tenor who can sing over an orchestra the size of Siberia, hurl vocal thunderbolts for two and a half hours, while being able to sing a hauntingly beautiful and lyrical melody at the opera’s end. Kaufmann was up to all the hurdles assembled by Korngold. He was close to the standard set by the late James King. A YouTube video of the complete opera featuring King along with Karen Armstrong in a 1983 Berlin staging is appended below.
The Russian conductor Kirill Petrenko led a forceful and nuanced reading of Korngold’s score. Korngold’s orchestra is larger than the Grande Armée (OK Siberia’s out) and when properly performed makes on overwhelming impression. As far as I could tell from a streaming audio Petrenko’s band was up to all of Korngold’s orchestral wizardry, though some of the lyrical moments were a little slow for my taste. Petrenko is both the music director of the Bavarian State Opera and the chief conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic.
It’s hard for me to judge the worth of Marlis Petersen’s singing as her voice tended to get mixed up in all the orchestral din as well as with the many other voices that are heard in this opera. Her high notes were a tad strained, but judging by the boisterous reception she received during her curtain calls, the Munich audience was very impressed.
As for the production, it was obviously invisible to me. Below are a pair of pictures of it which suggest the usual Eurotrash staging.
The numerous supporting roles in the second act were effectively done. Here’s the well known baritone aria from that act. [Mein sehnen] Filonczyk’s singing is good, but there’s more to get from this song than he realizes. The poignant conclusion to the opera contains a reprise of the work’s best known tune. Act 3 finale
It’s been more than 86 years since The Met last did Die Tote Stadt. Considering some of the drek they’ve been overcharging their audience for in recent years, it seems time for them to give Korngold’s masterpiece another shot – especially if they can convince Kaufmann to cross the Atlantic at least one more time.