The Times, November 25 2019
Neil Fisher
Korngold: Die tote Stadt, Bayerische Staatsoper, ab 18. November 2019
Die tote Stadt review — stylish and tender production has Jonas Kaufmann in his element
Erich Korngold’s Die tote Stadt (The Dead City) hasn’t been presented by the Bavarian State Opera for 60 years. However, if local boy Jonas Kaufmann shows an interest in singing the main part... well, that changes things. The result is a brilliantly conceived and audaciously well-performed production.

Based on a symbolist Belgian novel, Die tote Stadt imagines its hero, Paul, trapped by the memories of his dead wife, Marie, the house they lived in together in gloomy Bruges a shrine to her. When the dancer Marietta appears in town, he thinks she’s a virtual doppelganger for Marie, while she’s amused and creeped out by his obsession.

The roles of Paul and Marietta are punishingly high and long: the opera is set to luxuriously gift-wrapped orchestration, and the two virtually carry the entire piece over three gruelling acts (barring the show-stopping Pierrot-lied, here sweetly sung by the baritone Andrzej Filonczyk). Kaufmann is in his element, poignant and lyrical in Paul’s grief, but unstinting in heroic intensity. He has an ideal sparring partner in Marlis Petersen’s flirtatious, tigerish Marietta. Her agile voice is flecked with more silver than gold (perhaps Korngold imagined something more luscious), but Petersen is a completely absorbing, highly physical artist, and the chemistry between the two is compelling. When Petersen suddenly sings not as Marietta, but the dead Marie, the switch in her voice is uncanny and chilling.

The framework for this double act is a stylish and tender production by Simon Stone, with swish designs by Ralph Myers. Stone’s central gambit is to dismiss the usual premise — the long second act is an expressionist dream/nightmare, Marie and her cabaret chums are phantoms — for something much more touching. Playing with different eras and keeping you guessing as to what’s real and what’s imagined, the staging explores the soullessness of urban life (where grief is even harder to endure) as well as suggesting that past lovers never really do go away; can you ever forget old relationships when you move on to the next?

Spiked with creepy coups de théâtre (six dead Maries at one point stalk the stage in their hospital gowns), Stone’s production has Hitchcockian menace, but it’s underpinned by stark, empathetic humanity. And it finds its expressive counterpoint in the silky playing of the Bavarian State Opera orchestra under Kirill Petrenko’s imaginatively detailed conducting, shorn of easy sentiment and with its dissonant, dark core carefully revealed. “More corn than gold,” goes the old quip about Korngold’s much neglected music, but if you treat it like this, perhaps the dead can really come back to life.

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