Photo: Jef Rabillon
Die Tote Stadt by Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897 – 1957) is one of these works that go far beyond musical entertainment. Between reflection and emotion, it is a close-up of mankind’s major themes, life and love and death. The opera was first performed in 1920, and it still speaks to us and haunts us deeply. In the old town of Bruges, buried in its past, lives the widower Paul. Like the town, he islost in the past, mourning his wife. In his house, he has turned her room into a temple dedicated to memories, with her favourite things, her portrait and a strand of her hair. One day he meets a beautiful young dancer, Marietta, who is full of life and bears an uncanny resemblance to the late Marie. Their relationship will drive him to jealousy, near madness, and finally teach him to let go of the past and come back to life. This 2010 production by Opéra National de Lorraine, most fortunately taken up by Angers Nantes Opéra in this Spring of 2015, gets right to the essentials. A team of harmonized genius keeps the perfect balance between emotion and reflection: Philipp Himmelreich’s staging shows starkly the essential solitude of the characters in their own worlds. Raimund Bauer accordingly has constructed a set for Acts I and III in Paul’s house that is as simple as it is effective. The stage consists of six rooms, exactly identical, three above the other three, with six times the same armchair, the same lamp. Each character is thus confined to their isolated space, and the dialogues and scenic actions, even the love scenes between Paul andMarietta, are played at a distance. According to the musical colour of the moment, the colour of the light on the scenes will change. Gérard Cleven thus creates a particular atmosphere, between dream and reality, which is perfectly in tune with the music. Marie’s portrait is a video projection close-up of the young woman’s face that plays Marietta. During the final scene of Act III, this projection will imperceptibly grow and efficiently underline the anguish of the action. An equally excellent cast bring this universe to vibrating life. Daniel Kirch sings the part of Paul. A lyrical tenor, and also suave and virile, he doesn’t do things by half. He plungesrearlessly into his character’s emotional abysses, translates his feelings without ever overplaying it, and manages his force through all the forte and fortissimo in order to have the energy for the poignant final, which is so moving it brings tears. His partner, soprano Helena Juntunen as Marietta, is just as admirable. Beautiful and blonde, supple of voice and of body, she dances and gracefully submits to the acrobatic stage play. She incarnates with brio this distant cousin of Carmen, of Violetta Valéry. Just like them, she is beautiful and sexy, she loves love for the sack of love, without shame or prudishness; just like her forebears, she has to deal with death, albeit in a different manner. She must cope with the late wife of her lover, and with the way in which he is stuck in the past and has ceased to live himself. Through their relationship, she brings him back to life. The second roles are just as remarkable: the mezzo-soprano Maria Riccarda Wesseling sings the part of the faithful servant Brigitta, and it’s a pity that she doesn’t have more to say. Baritone Allen Boxer is a warm and convincing friend Frank, and John Chest sings Pierrot’s song with almost unbearable nostalgia. The absurd costume he wears, miles away from classic Pierrot, makes the effect even more powerful. The entire scene in front of Marietta’s house, Paul’s hallucination, resembles a lascivious danse macabre. Thomas Rösner conducts the Orchestre National des Pays de la Loire with raw intensity. They maintain the suspense in this haunted score from the first to the very last note. A memorable evening, a strong experience, this Tote Stadt, that doesn’t leave us untouched, especially those who have had to cope with a loved one’s death. A haunting evening, which will stay with us for some time. Bravi tutti, thank you everyone for a grand opera evening!