Album review: Opera Recording of the Year – Die tote Stadt of a lifetime from Bayerische Staatsoper

Premiered simultaneously in Hamburg and Cologne on 4 December 1920, under Egon Pollak and Otto Klemperer, respectively, the twenty-three-year-old Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s first full-length music drama, Die tote Stadt, Op. 12 (1916-20), soon became one of the greatest operatic hits of the century. 

On 10 January 1921, the opera was first performed in Vienna, the composer’s hometown, in a production, which received no less than 56 outings. Later the same year, Die tote Stadt crossed the Atlantic, setting the stage for Maria Jeritza’s debut at the Metropolitan Opera. On 12 April 1924, George Szell conducted the Berlin premiere with Lotte Lehmann and Richard Tauber in the leading roles. 

Performed far and wide throughout the 1920s, Die tote Stadt was staged over 70 times, before being abolished in the Austro-German repertoire by the Nazi regime, as a part of its devastating Entartete Musik policies. Following some postwar attempts for revival, the opera eventually fell into obscurity, more or less, for almost twenty five years. 

In 1975, Erich Leinsdorf conducted the premiere recording of the opera in studio sessions for RCA in Munich, with Carol Neblett and René Kollo singing in the two key roles. Jointly produced by George Korngold,the composer’s son, and Charles Gerhadt, the conductor best known for his Classic Film Scores series, the RCA recording paved the way for the opera’s eventual comeback over the next decades. 

Recently re-released, in marvellous SACD remaster by Dutton, the 1975 recording still holds its milestone position in the opera’s discography. Although more dramatic than the RCA studio take, subsequent live recordings of Die tote Stadt have been mostly unsatisfactory, be they in audio or video format. While some releases have had problems with sonics, others have been marred by unsuccessful stagings, not to mention the ones with substantial cuts to the music.   

Hence, the dazzling new video recording of  Die tote Stadt, caught live at the Bayerische Staatsoper in December 2019, is nothing less than a dream come true. Conducted by Kirill Petrenko and directed by Simon Stone, the production features an astounding cast, with Jonas Kaufmann and Marlis Petersen providing superlative performances of Paul and Marietta/Marie, alongside top-class supporting cast. 

Released on the house label of Bayerische Staatsoper, the Blu-ray edition is given in clear-cut digipak presentation, with synopsis, cast info and artist bios included, alongside some stage photography. The recoding itself is beautifully engineered, yielding to extraordinary aural and visual presentation of the phenomenal performance. Myriam Hofer’s video direction serves the stage production well, alongside some pleasant excursions to the orchestral pit during the preludes to Acts II and III.   

Based on Siegfried Trebitsch’s German translation of Georges Rodenbach’s play Le Voile (1894), itself an adaptation of the author’s serial novel Bruges-la-Morte (1892), the libretto for Die tote Stadt was devised by Korngold and his father, the music critic Julius Korngold, under the pseudonym of Paul Schott, referring to the opera’s main character and the composer’s publisher. 

Cast in three circa forty-five-minute acts, Die tote Stadt is a captivatingly intimate drama of love and loss, shrouded in dream and nightmare, with notable forays into Catholic mysticism. In the course of its dramatic arch, yearning and desire collide with piousness, woven together with clashes between the bourgeois and the bohemian views of the world. At its core, however, Die tote Stadt is a poignant study of the multi-layered realm of grief, surging all the way down to its most destructive manifestations.

Yet, at the same time, there is aching lyricism and witty comedy involved as well, balancing the phantasmagoric climax of the opera. The juxtaposition between real-life events, encompassing Act I and the opera’s consoling final scene, and the extended dream sequence, covering Act II and the most of Act III, gives rise to a series of multi-faceted musical and dramaturgical settings. 

Die tote Stadt revolves around its three main characters. Paul, a widower from Brugge, devoted to the memory of his dead wife, Marie, encounters Marietta, a dancer and, by chance, the perfect lookalike of Marie. Their initial meeting sets the stage for Paul’s dream; a game of doppelgänger, in which Marietta becomes a vessel for Marie’s resurrection, if only in corporal sense. 

As Marietta refuses to surrender her personality to the image of Paul’s yearning, the conflict deepens. Paul’s mental dissonance erupts into a psychotic episode, driven by religious undertones, where guilt and sin merge, bringing forth catastrophe. Absolved by wakefulness, Paul comes face to face with the irrevocability of his loss. Marietta, in her turn, is freed from her doppelgänger role, as Paul sees her for the first time as an actual, self-standing person. 

The third main character, personified by the orchestra, is the city of Brugge itself; engulfed in shadows of the past and echoed in church-bells. Supplemented with a cast including Paul’s old friend, Frank, his faithful servant, Brigitta, and a theatre trope accompanying Marietta, Die tote Stadt is a focused affair, in terms of dramatis personae

Choral forces are used to notable extent by Korngold in the nightmare sequence of the third act, where their solemn procession provides an apt device for heightening the drama. Yet, perhaps the single most powerful narrative feat comes in the guise of the apparition of Marie at the end of Act I. Sung by Marietta, her appearance constitutes the turning-point in the opera, to a powerful effect. 

Scored for a large orchestra with extended percussion section, augmented with offstage ensemble, harmonium and organ, Korngold’s orchestral setting is simply fabulous. A fabric of leitmotifs, the orchestral music is abundant with astonishing sonic colour, giving rise to a series of otherworldly harmonies, ones to stretch tonality to its limits, and beyond. 

Combined with melodic lines of utmost lyricism, beauty and poignancy, Korngold’s musical language is absolutely unique. Sure, one can hear echoes of Puccini and Richard Strauss, but these parallels are quite superficial. Deep down, the music is conceived with ravishing originality and immense craft, resulting in one of the true masterpieces of the 20th century. 

With Petrenko on the podium, the Bayerische Staatsorchester delivers an outstanding performance; a case in point of instrumental narrative. Awash with fine-tuned playing, the orchestral lines are drawn with acute intensity and tremendous sonic beauty. In the nightmare sequences, the full ensemble delivers a shattering rendition of Korngold’s porto-cinematic narrative. Joined by chorus and children’s chorus, their performance of Act III is simply peerless. 

Kaufmann and Petersen make superlative lead pair. Their top-class vocal performance goes without saying, certainly, their sung parts are wholeheartedly supported by their exquisite stage presence and perfect fit. Empowered by Simon Stone’s excellent stage direction, Kaufman and Petersen are engaged in splendid joint narrative. Alongside frailty and vehemence, there is a good share of comedy in their interactions too, something ofter overlooked in productions of this opera. 

While fundamentally tragic, Kaufmann’s real-life Paul succeeds in being as awkward (and creepy) as a mid-aged widower would be, subtly underlined by Petersen’s witty gestural commentary. 

A study of extremes, Petersen’s take on the dual role of Marietta/Marie is nothing short of ideal. The same can be said about Kaufmann, who extends the psychological narrative of Paul into deeply moving proportions. 

Although their roles are mainly conceived to frame that of Paul’s, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnston and baritone Andrej Filonczyk provide us with notable portrayals of Brigitta and Frank. Marietta’s troupe, sung by soprano Mirjam Mesak, mezzo-soprano Corinna Scheurle and tenor Dean Power make a fine consort, while tenor Manuel Günther nails Pierrot’s Tanzlied with his eloquent performance in Act II. 

The stage setting is based on a rotating apartment complex, used imaginatively throughout the opera. In the nightmarish Act III, the configuration of doors, walls and windows keep changing according to dream-like logic, yielding to absorbing rendition of the unreal. 

Brought to contemporary setting, the opera’s most famous number, Marietta’s Lied,is sung karaoke-style on Paul’s MacBook app, whereas Marie’s portrait is transformed into a collection of polaroids; resulting in middle-class retro at its finest. Yet none of this comes off as self-sufficient. Instead, the staging manages to rework Rodenbach’s gothic Brugge into present-day imagery with style, while keeping true to the emotional landscape of the libretto, and that of the music. 

Die tote Stadt of a lifetime, the terrific Bayerische Staatsoper production of Korngold’s ravishing score is to be counted as the finest operatic video release of 2021. Coming to disc forty-six years after the opera’s first studio recording, the new release begins a new chapter in the discography of this truly one-of-a-kind masterpiece. 

Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Die tote Stadt, Op. 12 (1916-20) – Opera in three acts

Bayerisches Staatsorchester

Kirill Petrenko, conductor

Chorus and Children’s Chorus of Bayerische Staatsoper

Stellario Fagone, chorus master

Jonas Kaufmann, tenor (Paul)

Marlis Petersen, soprano (Marietta)

Andrej Filonczyk, baritone (Frank/Fritz)

Jennifer Johnston, mezzo-soprano (Brigitta)

Mirjam Mesak, soprano (Juliette)

Corinna Scheurle, mezzo-soprano (Lucienne)

Manuel Günther, tenor (Gaston/Victorin)

Dean Power, tenor (Graf Albert)

Simon Stone, stage director

Ralph Myers, set design

Mel Page, costume design

Roland Edrich, light design

Myriam Hoyer, video director

Recorded at Bayerische Staatsoper, December 2019

BSO Recordings BSOREC2001(2021), 1 Blu-ray

© Jari Kallio 

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