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How a forgotten opera made a big comeback
Erich Wolfgang Korngolds DIE TOTE STADT | Musikalische Leitung: Kirill Petrenko | Inszenierung: Simon Stone. © Wilfried Hösl.

by Joshua Barone

MUNICH (NYT NEWS SERVICE ).- On a recent evening at the Bavarian State Opera here, there wasn’t an empty seat in the house. Even if one had opened up, there were people waiting outside in the December chill, eager to fill it.

It was one of those nights that felt like the event of the year — a fact remarkable if only because the work being performed was Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s “Die Tote Stadt” (“The Dead City”), which had once all but disappeared from the world’s stages.

Popularity is a fickle thing in any art form. The works of Bach were long considered outdated, until a 19th-century resurgence established him as perhaps the essential composer. Grand operas by Meyerbeer are now treated as curiosities, yet during his lifetime they were ubiquitous.

You can count Korngold (1897-1957) among the artists whose fame has ebbed and flowed over the past century — swept up in the tides of academic taste, the rise and fall of governments, and the willingness of opera companies to think beyond familiar classics.

After early years as a Viennese prodigy — praised by the likes of Mahler and Strauss, and finding career-making success with “Die Tote Stadt” in 1920 — he became a Hollywood pioneer, with a symphonic approach to film scoring (“The Adventures of Robin Hood,” “The Sea Hawk”) that echoes today in the soundtracks of John Williams. And his Violin Concerto in D, despite being little more than a showcase for expressivity, is entrenched in the repertoire.

But Korngold was Jewish, and it’s no coincidence that “Die Tote Stadt” — according to the opera’s performance history kept by his publisher, Schott — basically vanished after 1931. His life would have been at risk, as well, but Hollywood work sheltered Korngold from the worst of the Holocaust, and helped him become an American citizen in the 1940s. Exiled artists played a key role in shaping the United States’ midcentury culture; Korngold’s contribution was his film scores.

Much of his European music, though, is overlooked, and “Die Tote Stadt” returned only glacially. After 1931, it didn’t appear again until the ’50s, according to Schott. Then it was staged only a handful of times each decade — until the ’90s, when it was given nearly 70 performances. But this year alone, it will have received about that many.

Why now? And who is responsible?

Leon Botstein, a conductor and the president of Bard College, dived deeply into Korngold’s music at the college’s SummerScape festival this year, argued in an interview that the opera has benefited from a broader reconsideration of 20th-century music in both academic circles and concert halls.

“I was brought up in a time when Korngold was considered a minor figure, a kind of lingering late Romantic who had an ambivalent or perhaps an even hostile sense of the modern,” Botstein said. “Nobody took this stuff seriously until recently.”

It’s a familiar tale with refugee composers — particularly Jewish ones — who had enjoyed popularity between the world wars. Korngold’s music was deemed degenerate by the Nazi party, suddenly grouped with more combatively modern works like Kurt Weill’s “The Threepenny Opera” and Ernst Krenek’s “Jonny Spielt Auf.”

Then Korngold’s music struggled to find a resurgence after the war. It had become unfashionable, especially compared with the Darmstadt School avant-garde of Pierre Boulez and Luciano Berio. Performances of “Die Tote Stadt” were more or less limited to excerpts, like the popular aria “Glück, das mir verlieb.” It wasn’t until tonality and a Romantic touch found new favor in the late 20th century that Korngold’s sound achieved more respect and recognition.

Of his operas, “Die Tote Stadt” may be the safest bet for programmers. Even at its lowest ebb of popularity, the work was still better known than, for example, his more sophisticated “Das Wunder der Heliane.” And the score is easy to love; like Puccini’s “Turandot,” also from the 1920s, it looks predominantly backward, with occasional glances toward modernism. Orchestrated with the lushness of Strauss, its melodies are heartwarming, though they require a fleet conductor’s baton to keep them from sliding into schmaltz.

More difficult for audiences is the libretto, an adaptation by Korngold and his father of Georges Rodenbach’s novel “Bruges-la-Morte.” It’s often unsophisticated, with a dated perspective on the myth of the “eternal feminine” and an “it was all a dream” twist. Its psychology, while darkly intriguing — the protagonist is a man who, unable to recover from the death of his wife, falls in love with her doppelgänger — verges on overly simplistic.

“It’s an opera that can easily be terrible,” Nikolaus Bachler, the Bavarian State Opera’s director, said in an interview. “The music is not a masterpiece, and the tenor is an impossible role to sing.”

Yet it has increasingly been embraced, and by some of the world’s largest and most influential houses. Last season, the Teatro alla Scala in Milan staged it for the first time, conducted by Alan Gilbert and starring Klaus Florian Vogt and Asmik Grigorian.

And the work’s comeback may have reached its peak at the Bavarian State Opera. It’s difficult to imagine a better case for “Die Tote Stadt” than was made in Munich, with luxury casting in the tenor Jonas Kaufmann and the soprano Marlis Petersen; conducting by the company’s music director, Kirill Petrenko; and a sleekly cinematic staging by Simon Stone. (It was recorded for DVD release and will return for the Munich Opera Festival next summer.)

Petrenko milked the score’s modernism and led it with a propulsive energy that gave it more madness than sentimentality. He had long wanted to conduct this music, Bachler said, adding with a laugh that Petrenko once told him in a meeting, “I’ll do whatever you want, as long as I get to do ‘Tote Stadt.’”

At the public presentation of the Bavarian State Opera’s 2019-20 season in April, Petrenko expressed his affinity for the score. “For me, this music is this amalgamation of reality and dream,” he said. “It corresponds so much to this late Romantic period, with the interpretation of dreams in Vienna, which serves this whole Viennese sound spectrum beginning with late Mahler, early Berg, which Korngold certainly serves but absolutely proves his own individuality in every note.”

Few would argue that Korngold’s music — complimented by Botstein for its “perfumed beauty” — has the depth of Mahler and Berg. But Petrenko more or less redeemed the score, by teasing out every corner of that “Viennese sound spectrum” with exuberance and clarity.

His conducting also brought out a new ferocity in Kaufmann and Petersen, two longtime collaborators of Petrenko’s who had never before sung together in Munich, but who performed as if they’d been sharing a marquee for years.

Having sung Salome and Lulu at extremes of acidity and fragility, Petersen was especially well suited to the dual role of Marie and Marietta — the delicately voiced dead wife and her romping, youthful look-alike. Her Marietta was particularly frightening in its transformation from the heartfelt floating top notes of “Glück, das mir verlieb” to the barbed, animalistic intensity of the opera’s violent climax.

Kaufmann, his shadowy tenor pained and passionate, responded with uncharacteristic fearlessness. He has always had a matinee-idol appearance, but now gave a movie-star performance to match. In remembering Marie, his Paul was visibly tormented, with a voice occasionally made ugly by melancholy; and in chasing Marietta he was foolish and crazed, throwing himself over furniture in what amounted to a cardio workout atop heldentenor high notes.

Stone’s staging was characteristically hyper-realistic; the appliances of Paul’s handsomely modern home were plugged into the wall, and the kitchen cabinets were stocked. (The set design was by Ralph Myers.) “Die Tote Stadt” is a dream opera, though, and Stone peppered surrealism throughout each act, with reserve and to shocking effect.

The house was modular, and as Paul dissociated and dreamed, its rooms came apart — reconfiguring so that some doors opened to walls, as if it were the Winchester Mystery House, or stacking on one another to create a maze of towers. Never did Stone’s direction conflict with the libretto; his staging was smoothly effective, as balanced as Petrenko’s conducting. It was so tidy that, after Paul awoke from his chaotic nightmare, his home calmly returned to its initial shape, like a Rubik’s Cube snapping into place.

With a crowd-pleasing reprise of “Glück, das mir verlieb” at the end, it’s no surprise that “Die Tote Stadt” can so easily win over audiences. There may even come a time, if the opera’s popularity continues on its current path, when it becomes a true repertory staple. But what of Korngold’s other stage works, or those of his neglected contemporaries? They no longer face the political and academic barriers that forced them into obscurity, but if the history of “Die Tote Stadt” is any indication, their fates will be almost entirely reliant on the adventurousness of administrators — and the nudging of influential artists.

“It’s great that ‘Die Tote Stadt’ is making a comeback,” Botstein said. “But this represents just the tip of the operatic iceberg.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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