The New York Times, Jan. 3, 2020
By Joshua Barone
Korngold: Die tote Stadt, Bayerische Staatsoper, ab 18. November 2019
How a Forgotten Opera Made a Big Comeback
Korngold’s “Die Tote Stadt” was a hit in 1920. Then it all but disappeared, only to regain its popularity in the 21st century.

MUNICH — On a recent evening at the Bavarian State Opera here, there wasn’t an empty seat in the house. Even if one had opened up, there were people waiting outside in the December chill, eager to fill it.

It was one of those nights that felt like the event of the year — a fact remarkable if only because the work being performed was Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s “Die Tote Stadt” (“The Dead City”), which had once all but disappeared from the world’s stages....

...And the work’s comeback may have reached its peak at the Bavarian State Opera. It’s difficult to imagine a better case for “Die Tote Stadt” than was made in Munich, with luxury casting in the tenor Jonas Kaufmann and the soprano Marlis Petersen; conducting by the company’s music director, Kirill Petrenko; and a sleekly cinematic staging by Simon Stone. (It was recorded for DVD release and will return for the Munich Opera Festival next summer.)

Mr. Petrenko milked the score’s modernism and led it with a propulsive energy that gave it more madness than sentimentality. He had long wanted to conduct this music, Mr. Bachler said, adding with a laugh that Mr. Petrenko once told him in a meeting, “I’ll do whatever you want, as long as I get to do ‘Tote Stadt.’”

At the public presentation of the Bavarian State Opera’s 2019-20 season in April, Mr. Petrenko expressed his affinity for the score. “For me, this music is this amalgamation of reality and dream,” he said. “It corresponds so much to this late Romantic period, with the interpretation of dreams in Vienna, which serves this whole Viennese sound spectrum beginning with late Mahler, early Berg, which Korngold certainly serves but absolutely proves his own individuality in every note.”

Few would argue that Korngold’s music — complimented by Mr. Botstein for its “perfumed beauty” — has the depth of Mahler and Berg. But Mr. Petrenko more or less redeemed the score, by teasing out every corner of that “Viennese sound spectrum” with exuberance and clarity.

His conducting also brought out a new ferocity in Mr. Kaufmann and Ms. Petersen, two longtime collaborators of Mr. Petrenko’s who had never before sung together in Munich, but who performed as if they’d been sharing a marquee for years.

Having sung Salome and Lulu at extremes of acidity and fragility, Ms. Petersen was especially well suited to the dual role of Marie and Marietta — the delicately voiced dead wife and her romping, youthful look-alike. Her Marietta was particularly frightening in its transformation from the heartfelt floating top notes of “Glück, das mir verlieb” to the barbed, animalistic intensity of the opera’s violent climax.

Mr. Kaufmann, his shadowy tenor pained and passionate, responded with uncharacteristic fearlessness. He has always had a matinee-idol appearance, but now gave a movie-star performance to match. In remembering Marie, his Paul was visibly tormented, with a voice occasionally made ugly by melancholy; and in chasing Marietta he was foolish and crazed, throwing himself over furniture in what amounted to a cardio workout atop heldentenor high notes.

Mr. Stone’s staging was characteristically hyper-realistic; the appliances of Paul’s handsomely modern home were plugged into the wall, and the kitchen cabinets were stocked. (The set design was by Ralph Myers.) “Die Tote Stadt” is a dream opera, though, and Mr. Stone peppered surrealism throughout each act, with reserve and to shocking effect.

The house was modular, and as Paul dissociated and dreamed, its rooms came apart — reconfiguring so that some doors opened to walls, as if it were the Winchester Mystery House, or stacking on one another to create a maze of towers. Never did Mr. Stone’s direction conflict with the libretto; his staging was smoothly effective, as balanced as Mr. Petrenko’s conducting. It was so tidy that, after Paul awoke from his chaotic nightmare, his home calmly returned to its initial shape, like a Rubik’s Cube snapping into place.

With a crowd-pleasing reprise of “Glück, das mir verlieb” at the end, it’s no surprise that “Die Tote Stadt” can so easily win over audiences. There may even come a time, if the opera’s popularity continues on its current path, when it becomes a true repertory staple. But what of Korngold’s other stage works, or those of his neglected contemporaries? They no longer face the political and academic barriers that forced them into obscurity, but if the history of “Die Tote Stadt” is any indication, their fates will be almost entirely reliant on the adventurousness of administrators — and the nudging of influential artists.

“It’s great that ‘Die Tote Stadt’ is making a comeback,” Mr. Botstein said. “But this represents just the tip of the operatic iceberg.”

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