Reino Unido

Blonde 2

Matthew Ingleby

lunes, 2 de marzo de 2009
London, viernes, 13 de febrero de 2009. The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Die tote Stadt. Willy Decker, director. Karin Voykowitsch, associate director. Wolfgang Gussmann, designs. Wolfgang Gobbel, lighting design. Stephen Gould (Paul), Nadja Michael (Marie/Marietta), Gerald Finley (Frank/Fritz). Kathleen Wilkinson (Brigitta). Steven Ebel (Victorin/Voice of Gaston). Ji-Min Park (Graf Albert). Simona Mihai (Juliette). Jurgita Adamonyte (Lucienne). Orchestra & Chorus of the Royal Opera House. Ingo Metzmacher, conductor
Willy Decker's celebrated production of Die tote Stadt has finally arrived in London. Having done the rounds in Amsterdam, San Francisco and Barcelona, this landmark interpretation marks the first UK staging of Korngold's third and most famous opera - an odd fact, perhaps, considering the composer's near-canonisation in parts of the European opera circuit in recent decades. Decker’s production originated in Korngold's own Austria, where it was a highlight of the 2004 Salzburg Festival, before being presented in Vienna. Though the dead city of its title is literally Bruges (in accordance with the novel by Georges Rodenbach on which it is based), it is very much the spirit of the Austrian capital that haunts this piece.

First performed in 1920, the year after Freud’s essay upon The Uncanny, Die tote Stadt is suffused with both the heavy symbolism of that later death-driven psychoanalysis and the late romanticism of Strauss, Zemlinsky and Mahler. The main protagonist, Paul, is a compulsive mourner who has made his house into a shrine for his dead wife, Marie, worshipping what is in this production a huge and somewhat crude painting of her face, and treasuring a lock of her golden hair in a glass case. When a stranger named Marietta arrives with hair of exactly the same hue and a likeness in face and voice so remarkable that he thinks her a doppelganger, Paul’s obsession transfers from the dead and dumb to the live and vocal blonde.

In this opera, then, the sound world of Der Rosenkavalier meets the image world of the film Vertigo, Alfred Hitchcock’s own meditation on the figure of the strangely familiar golden girl – an peculiarly apt and appropriate connection perhaps when we remember Korngold’s flight to Hollywood’s film music industry after the rise of Hitler

Dream sequences follow, in which the theatre-dancer Marietta and her frivolous friends drive poor Paul to distraction, firstly applying vulgar rouge to his immortal beloved’s cheeks as they appear in the portrait, and then – rather chillingly – covering it with a skull. When Marietta goes so far as to desecrate Marie’s hair by wearing it on her own de-wigged bald head, Paul strangles her with it, a scene that reminds one of Robert Browning’s poem Porphyria’s Lover: ‘all her hair/In one long yellow string I wound/Three times her little throat around’. In Korngold’s opera, however, (though not in Rodenbach’s novel) the murder is just the cathartic climax of Paul’s nightmare. A somewhat surprising happy end ensues, in which the patient gets up off the couch and is cured, leaving the room (and stage) in which he has cocooned himself for so long by a door that represents his final choice of life and hope.

©2009 by Bill Cooper

This production preserves a sense of ambiguity as to ‘real’ and ‘dreamed’ worlds, by having a separate stage behind the first one that is nevertheless permeable. When we see the blonde head of Marietta as she sits with her back to us in the other distant stage, the lighting makes us focus on it intently, willing us momentarily to participate in Paul’s fetish. When the identical pictures of the dead wife multiply, emerging out of the darkness, one by one, we are offered a potent literalisation of Paul’s mania. These and other thoughtful inspirations of stagecraft enabled a coherent piece of theatre to develop here, by which potentially dated psychobabble was transformed into something rather emotionally and intellectually sophisticated.

Korngold’s music intelligently underlines the drama’s tension between Paul’s need for consolatory escape and his uncanny compulsion to revisit and repeat past trauma, by the frequent interjection of an unsettling discordant bell motif in the midst of lush Straussian string writing. The conductor, Ingo Metzmacher, coaxed some very fine playing out of the orchestra, who sounded as though they were grateful to the composer for this gift of a score.

Gould as Paul and Michel as Marie-Marietta
©2009 by Bill Cooper

The vocal lines are frequently very high, demanding great stamina, and the two leads generally rose to their challenge, though there were moments when they both sounded strained. Stephen Gould deserves a special mention for some well controlled singing in a high tessitura, and Nadja Michael’s soprano was appropriately lithe, to match her dancer’s body – though she was occasionally flat on some of the highest notes. Particularly effective was their duet at the end of the famous ‘Marietta’s lied’, whose Puccinian lyrical directness blossomed out of the shifting chromaticism of the first act, and the balance here between unison voices and swelling orchestra was well managed. In the part of Paul’s friend Frank/Fritz, Canadian baritone Gerald Finley gave us perhaps the most incontestably beautiful singing of the evening, and the minor roles were all persuasively performed.

All in all, Decker’s production is a triumph, demonstrating that Die tote Stadt is alive and flourishing. Like Marie, it demands – and deserves - to be seen, and to return to the stage over and over again.


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