Die tote Stadt, the then 23-year-old Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s operatic smash hit of 1920, has finally reached English National Opera for the first time. The Dead City is just the kind of ambitious endeavour that this traditionally edgy company should aspire to. With its surrealistic action and heady, post-Straussian late romanticism, it is also quite a gamble.
The story is based on Georges Rodenbach’s novella Bruges-la-Morte, but with a framing device of a dream, added by Korngold and his father, the critic Julius Korngold, who wrote the libretto together under a pseudonym. In the “dead city” of Bruges, Paul obsessively mourns his dead wife, Marie. On meeting a dancer, Marietta – the pious Marie’s physical double, but her opposite in nature, sexy and free-spirited – he hallucinates an involvement with her that culminates with him strangling her with a lock of Marie’s hair. He wakes, resolving to leave his destructive grief behind.
Director Annilese Miskimmon, with designers Miriam Buether and Nicky Gillibrand, updates the story to the 1950s, a suitably stuffy era for Paul’s conflict-laden religiosity. The narrative is admirably clear and full of imaginative touches involving red roses, swirling mists and a pink umbrella. Marie’s ghost is a physical presence (the actor Lauren Bridle), distraught to witness her husband making frantic love to Marietta; ancient Bruges is evoked through foggy funeral processions; and in a biting twist, Paul’s confidant, Frank, who doubles as Pierrot of Marietta’s theatrical troupe, is a less-than-pure priest.
This opera, however, depends heavily on its two lead roles. The tenor Rolf Romei, a convincingly high-octane presence as the troubled Paul, had been ill and was audibly suffering. As Marietta, soprano Allison Oakes was quite the opposite, with impressive vocal power, but wooden acting. Her gaze seemed resolutely pinned to one person: the conductor.
Magnificent moments occurred. Audun Iversen as Frank/Pierrot sang the celebrated “Tanzlied” straight from the heart, and the chorus plus the Finchley Children’s Music Group let rip in Act III’s luscious religious procession. Sarah Connolly gave the housekeeper, Brigitta, a touch of Mrs Danvers, and Rhian Lois, Clare Presland, Innocent Masuku, William Morgan and Hubert Francis as Marietta’s friends offered high spirits galore.
In the pit, the ENO Orchestra under Kirill Karabits worked Korngold’s fearsome score valiantly, yet it felt undercooked. Perhaps a few more performances will tighten it up.
The team may need longer with The Dead City to bring it fully to life; but there’s the start, to quote Pierrot, of “a glorious dream”.