Die tote Stadt: A saga of love and delusion by the first great Hollywood composer
By Peter Alexander Feb. 23 at 5:15 p.m.
Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s opera Die tote Stadt (The dead city) is rarely performed today, but it was one of the greatest hits of the 1920s.
Korngold’s lush, Romantic score and the tale of love and madness resonated with European audiences after World War I. Even though the composer was only 23, Die tote Stadt was premiered simultaneously in two cities in 1920, and within two years had been performed world wide, including performances at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Suppressed by Nazi authorities because of Korngold’s Jewish heritage, the opera disappeared. But with its early record of success, Die tote Stadt is ripe for revival, and Opera Colorado is stepping up with a production that opens this weekend at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in Denver (7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 25; additional performances will be Tuesday, Feb. 28, Friday, March 3, and Sunday, March 5. See full details below).
Opera Colorado’s original production of Tote Stadt was designed by Robert Perdziola. The performances will be conducted by Opera Colorado’s music director Ari Pelto. Stage director is Chas Rader-Shieber.
Born in Austria in 1897, Korngold was one of many central European musicians of his generation who enriched the musical life of the U.S. when they fled the Nazi regime. Though not as well known today as Schoenberg or Bartók, he had immense impact on American musical life. He was the first great composer of music for Hollywood films, notably several swashbucklers starting Errol Flynn including Captain Blood (1935), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), and The Sea Hawk (1940). Korngold won Academy awards for his scores for Anthony Adverse (1936) and The Adventures of Robin Hood.
The story of Tote Stadt is derived from a novel by the Belgian symbolist Georges Rodenbach, Bruges-la-Morte (The dead city of Bruges). Korngold’s father knew the translator of Rodenbach’s novel into German, and suggested the story to his son as an opera. Father and son wrote the libretto together, under the name Paul Schott.
The plot concerns Paul, an artist living in Bruges, Belgium, whose wife Marie had died before the opera begins. Unable to accept his wife’s death, Paul keeps a morbid memorial to her in his apartment. One day he becomes convinced that a woman he saw in the street, a dancer named Marietta, is Marie reincarnated. He tells his friend Frank about this delusion.
Marietta visits Paul, and dances for him, then leaves for a rehearsal. Paul has an extended vision that involves a meeting with Frank and various members of Marietta’s dance company, and a liaison with Marietta. Later Paul imagines that he strangles Marietta rather than allow her to leave, but in the end he realizes that it was all an illusion.
With such an intriguing story, Tote Stadt might seem a good candidate for a return to the popularity it achieved in the 1920s. But there are reasons beyond Nazi suppression that it is not performed often. “I understand one reason why it’s not done very much, because it’s difficult music,” cast member Jonathan Johnson says. “The orchestra has to be on top of their game, we have to be on top of our game.”
In addition to Johnson, who sings the relatively minor roles of Viktorin, head of the dance company that features Marietta, and Gaston, who sings from offstage, the cast includes tenor Jonathan Burton, who recently appeared in Puccini’s Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera, in the leading role as Paul. Frank will be sung by Daniel Belcher, who has sung at the Met as well as houses in Paris, London, Berlin, Tokyo and other cities around the world. Elizabeth Bishop, another Met soloist, will sing the role of Brigitte, Paul’s maid who leaves his service to join a convent.
The role of Marietta and the spectral Marie, taken by a single soprano, is more complicated. Sara Gartland, who has sung major soprano roles with companies across the U.S., was engaged for Marietta/Marie but developed severe vocal fatigue after arriving in Colorado. She was diagnosed with laryngeal nerve paresis, paralysis of the vocal cords, possibly a result of a past COVID-19 infection. As a result, Kara Shay Thomson, another experienced soprano, will sing Marietta/Marie while Gartland acts the role onstage.
This arrangement is not unusual when singers develop severe problems late in the preparation of a production. It happened at Opera Colorado in 2013 when bass Kevin Langan was unable to sing the role of Frère Laurent in Gounod’s Romeo et Juilliette. Langan acted onstage, while an apprentice singer sang the role from the side of the stage. The same thing happened at the 2011 world premiere of Kevin Puts’s Silent Night at Minnesota Opera, when tenor William Burden was unable to sing the lead role of Sprink on opening night and chorus member Brad Benoit sang the part while Burden acted and lip-synced. Many opera singers have had similar experiences.
Although he has a relatively small role in the production, Johnson may be on his way to greater renown. He was featured in the February 2023 issue of Opera News magazine. “I was thrilled,” he says about the article. “It puts my name in front of people who don’t know who I am.”
The article came as a surprise, Johnson says, probably as the result of a principal role he took in Stewart Wallace’s opera Harvey Milk at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis last summer. As for his role in Tote Stadt, “I’m the ringleader of the cacophony that happens in the second act,” he says.
Even though Viktorin is onstage for only about 10 minutes, Johnson is committed to making the role more than a walk-on. “Small roles don’t know that they’re small roles, and that’s how you should play them,” he says. “I try to never rest when I’m onstage, and think about my relationship to all of these other characters.”
But in this case you shouldn’t take what you see literally. “It’s a dream-like sequence where we’re all in Paul’s mind,” he explains. “The version of us that you see is not necessarily the version that exists offstage.”
Before being cast in the Opera Colorado production, Johnson had only heard a single aria from Tote Stadt, and he is relishing learning the opera. “I have such appreciation for Korngold, how he weaves the themes throughout,” he says. “It’s an express train that you have to get on, and if you miss your stop, good luck getting back on! It just rolls. And because of that I find it incredibly compelling to hear.
“This music is so beautiful and film-like, in a way that I think people will respond to. There are parts that still give me chills.”
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Die tote Stadt by Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Libretto by Paul Schott (Erich and Julius Korngold)
Ari Pelto, conductor; Chas Rader-Shieber, director
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 25, Tuesday, Feb. 28, and Friday, March 3
2 p.m. Sunday, March 5
Ellie Caulkins Opera House, Denver Performing Arts Complex
NOTE: Opera Colorado has announced their 2023–24 season, featuring productions of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Wagner’s Flying Dutchman and Saint Saëns’s Samson and Delilah. Information about season tickets may be found on the Opera Colorado Web page.