Die Stadt tote at the Longborough Festival Opera
THE composer Erich Korngold (1897-1957) is best known for writing the music for films of Hollywood’s Golden Age, which tended to overshadow his formidable talents in the “classical” or “serious” genre. .
Fortunately, Korngold’s brilliance as a music-maker far beyond the world of film scores is currently enjoying a revival and the Longborough Festival Opera in the Cotswolds is at the forefront of this.
Recently it staged four performances of Korngold’s opera Die tote Stadt (The Dead City), which is only the second time the work has been performed in this country in 102 years since its world premiere in Germany in 1920, when Korngold was just a mere 23 years old. And the first British production dates back to 2009 with the Royal Opera of Covent Garden!
Born in Brno, in what is now the Czech Republic, Korngold had been a child prodigy and later a composer admired by such luminaries as Richard Strauss and Giacomo Puccini before heading to Hollywood at the invitation of the theater and film director Austrian-born Max Reinhardt.
At Reinhardt’s request, Korngold adapted music by Felix Mendelssohn for Reinhardt’s 1935 film version of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream starring, among others, Olivia de Havilland and James Cagney. Korngold went on to write the original scores for 1930s swordsmen such as Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood, both with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland.
It is with this knowledge of Korngold’s mastery of film music that one inevitably approaches his youthful opera Die tote Stadt. It should be noted that this was actually his third opera – he had already written two one-act operas which were conducted in 1916 by no less a figure than Bruno Walter.
The first thing to say about it is that it’s full of rich late romantic textures and beautiful melodies even though the subject matter – a man’s belief that his dead wife has come back to life when he meets her double – is rather morbid. , to say the least. And the ghost town of Korngold’s opera, in this stretch of symbolism, is the Bruges of all places, known to tourists today as a medieval attraction of cultural magnificence.
The widower Paul in the Longborough production was tenor Peter Auty, who first rose to prominence as a 13-year-old altar boy when he sang Walking in the Air in the 1982 film The Snowman . (Ironically, Korngold wrote a ballet called The Snowman (Der Schneemann) when he was just 11!)
It’s a very demanding role – on a Wagnerian scale – and Mr. Auty gave his all (which was hearty).
But the most striking feature of the Thursday, June 23 performance was that soprano Rachel Nicholls – playing the role of late wife Marie and her lookalike Marietta – had a throat infection and was “playing the part” so her “voice” was provided by Luci Briginshaw, singing from the side of the stage.
This is the second time this season this has happened at Longborough. During the screening of Wagner’s Siegfried – the first of four operas presented at the festival this year – the role of Alberich the Dwarf was sung from a box near the stage by Hong Kong-born British bass-baritone Freddie Tong while the regular lead singer of the role, Mark Stone, performed and mimed the role. (Mr. Stone had “not felt 100 percent,” but was fit enough to do the moves onstage without using his voice.)
It speaks volumes about the quality of singers available at Longborough that the “substitute” performers are of an exceptional caliber. In this case, Ms Briginshaw was so brilliant in her supporting role that she received the biggest round of applause at the end of the show. His vocal range and articulate eloquence were impressive, and his impact on audiences was electrifying from the start.
The rest of the cast of this production – New Zealand baritone Benson Wilson, tenors Alexander Sprague and Lee David Bowen, mezzo-soprano Stephanie Windsor-Lewis and soprano Rosie Lomas – all contributed to this tremendous restoration of a early masterpiece by a composer. whose work is currently experiencing something of a renaissance.
It is to the credit of director Carmen Jakobi and conductor Justin Brown, and all the powers that be in Longborough, that they had the wit and vision to bring Erich Korngold back to life – even if poor Paul couldn’t quite do the same for his dead wife in Die Tote Stadt.