Lust and Guilt and the Ghosts of the Past

Paul and Marietta. © Stefan Bremer, Finnish National Opera

A man in love. A man mourning his deceased wife. Paul and Marie. Paul has transformed his house into a shrine with pictures and other souvenirs of Marie and is completely absorbed by his memories of her. Frank, Paul’s friend, tries to reason with his him, to make him overcome his sorrow – and fails. Paul feels erotically attracted to another woman, the dancer Marietta, which he confuses with Marie, at the same time he feels guilt. Then his fantasies take control of him, and he sees the ghost of Marie stepping out of her portrait and he believes that a song sung by Marietta is actually performed by Marie.

“Sie war schön? Nein, sie ist schön” is the first dramatic moment of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s opera “Die tote Stadt” (The Dead City). Paul tells Frank about his fantasy that Marie is actually alive, yet at the same time he laments about “a dead woman, a dead city, a parable”. Another heartbreaking moment of the first act is the duet of Marietta and Paul. “Glück, das mir verblieb”, a song that Marie used to sing. The act closes with Paul realizing that Marietta did seduce him as a dancer, but does not love him as a wife. He swears eternal love to the ghost of Marie, while orgiastic music alludes to Marietta’s theatre company coming to town.

Fact or fiction?

After the lovely prelude to Act II, the story takes the next dramatic turn. Paul dreams he is meeting Marietta and finds out that she is also courted by Frank. Meanwhile Marietta crosses with her theatre company the city – Bruges actually – and flirts with their patron and the actor Gaston. During an impromptu performance Marietta plays the role of Hélène, a nun resurrected from death out of Meyerbeer’s opera “Robert le Diable”. Paul accuses Marietta of blasphemy, but he remains under her spell. Again his lust is mixed with the feeling of guilt, nevertheless he lets her seduce him.

The aria sung by Fritz, the company actor playing Pierrot, is very moving. He sings about a passionate love gone by long, how he overcame his sorrow and longing by becoming a comedian – a discrete hoodwink to Paul. Marietta’s seduction of Paul, the analogy of Hélène seducing Robert, is a powerful moment, underlined by Korngold’s music: ultimate tension alternating with gentleness. The full conflict between Paul’s fantasies and Marietta’s triviality become apparent in their duet.

A late Romantic opera

In Act III Marietta wakes up in Paul’s bed and is now confronted with Marie respectively with her portrait. Marietta wants her to go away. She mocks Paul’s feelings, upon which Paul strangulates Marietta. Suddenly, Paul wakes up and finds out that it all was a dream. Marietta comes back to his house, but Paul is no longer interested in her. He understands that he has to let go the past and move on.

Marietta’s defying aria “Dich such ich, Bild! Mit dir hab ich zu reden!” at the beginning of the third act is a beautiful contrast to the heavenly, innocent chant of children during Lent that accompanies the disopute between Marietta and Paul. The climax of the confrontation is announced by march music growing increasingly dissonant. It does not come as a surprise that Korngold’s late fame rested on the movie soundtracks he composed for Hollywood!

Korngold wrote this opera in 1920, at the beginning of his career. The work made him famous on an international scale. It follows the tradition of the late Romanticism, the heritage of Korngold’s teacher Alexander Zemlinsky. “Die tote Stadt” was inspired by the novel “Bruges-la-Morte”, published in 1892 by the Belgian writer Georges Rodenbach. The libretto however was written by Julius Korngold, the composer’s father, who was an influential music critic.

Korngold’s optimistic message

Rodenbach’s setting for his novel was a dispirited European town, overwhelmed by a rapid transformation of the economy and the society, a fin de siècle scenario ending with a real murder, not a dream. Korngold however was under the impression of World War I and the devastation of Europe. Austria, Korngold’s home country, had lost the war, the emperor was gone. Korngold wanted to show that life goes on, even after the most tragic events, events that can have a cathartic moment. The very impressive production of the Finnish National Opera, directed by Kasper Holten, transfers the setting once more, this time into the first years of Allied occupation of Europe after World War II. And while is was listening to this opera, I had to think about those dying industrial towns in the US, in Europe, victims of a new economic revolution, driving people into misery, despair and dangerous fantasies.

Fact and fiction, the obsession of love, men’s delusions and their self-pity, lust and guilt, death and rebirth – Korngold’s opera gravitates around traditional operatic subjects, however the dynamic of the action and the music are resolutely modern if if we take the year of 1920 as the reference point. It took some time until I realized its dramatic potential and fully appreciated Korngold’s orchestration, but by now I like it a lot, even if I just hear the music. If you do not enjoy opera productions on DVD, I suggest you listen to the recording of Frankfurt Opera Chorus, Frankfurt Opera Children’s Chorus and the Frankfurt Opera and Museum Orchestra.

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de Chareli

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2 thoughts on “Lust and Guilt and the Ghosts of the Past”

  1. I love Korngold. Such a versatile composer. And ‘Die Tote Stadt’ is superb. I have a recording conducted by Erich Leinsdorf.

    1. I only knew this opera and his violin concerto up to last month, but since then I have started to discover his chamber music works – so much beautiful music to discover!

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