Opera UK, February 2020
Hugh Canning
Korngold: Die tote Stadt, Bayerische Staatsoper, ab 18. November 2019
Die tote Stadt
Simon Stone's production of Korngold's Die tote Stadt at the NATIONALTHEATER—the BAYERISCHE STAATSOPER it's first since the 1950s, when it flopped in the presence of the composer—gives us, perhaps, an inkling of the future trajectory of Jonas Kaufmann's career. Now 50, with Otello behind him and, according to rumour, Tannhäuser, Tristan, Saint-Sans's Samson and even Peter Grimes to come, the voice (lithe leading German tenor of his generation is a much-changed instrument from that which won him accolades for his Mozart singing two decades ago. The prospect of his debut as Korngold's Paul—a visionary dreamer, lost in grief for the death of his wife, Marie, and nurturing an obsession with a woman, Marietta, he thinks is her alter ego—raised a few eyebrows in advance. The role is punishingly high and calls for an Otello-like temperament in the scene where he imagines he is strangling Marietta after she proves a hedonistic husk of the woman he imagined her to be. But at the performance I attended on November 26, near the end of the initial run, he banished sceptics' concerns with a dramatic performance of slow-burning intensity, introverted and vulnerable in his mourning for Marie, yet rising to a frenzy of violence and despair as disillusionment with the object of his fantasy turned to hatred at the climax of the drama.

This was my fourth encounter with Die tote Swell in the theatre (after Cologne, London and Frankfurt) and by far the most convincing musically. It was conducted with evangelical fervour and forensic orchestral clarity by Kirill Petrenko, who never allowed the Staatsorchester to overwhelm the voices, while clearly wallowing in Korngold's luxuriant, melodic invention. The hit numbers—Marietta's das mir verblieb' and its reprise by Paul, and Pierrot's Tanzlied, 'Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen'—have rarely packed such an emotional punch.

Stone's production, in more or less contemporary sets (Ralph Myers) and costumes (Mel Page), may have been short of decadent atmosphere, but it brought the psychological drama of Paul's gradual mental breakdown into high relief as his apartment, papered with photos of Marie, was reconfigured as Marietta's more Bohemian dwelling. The arty posters were replaced by soft porn; the shelves where Marie's glassware and crockery had been handsomely displayed were filled with empty beer bottles. Marietta's dubious companions—played by Mirjam Mesak, Corinna Scheurle, Dean Power and Manuel Gunther—could hardly have offered a starker contrast with the domestic solidity of Paul's housekeeper, Brigitta, a deluxe cameo from Jennifer Johnston, generously and warmly sung with her plush mezzo-soprano.

Marlis Petersen may not have the opulence of voice ideally suggested by Marietta's music, but she is a moving actress, and her incisive diction and outstanding musicianship more than compensated for a want of tonal plenitude. Kaufmann's tone is beginning to betray his age as much as his grizzled locks and beard; but, as the Munich production of Otello also demonstrated, that suits his dramatic temperament, and it made Paul a psychologically more compelling figure than is sometimes the case. If his assault on the high notes was sometimes strenuous, he never sounded out of his depth. In the dual role of Paul's friend Frank and Marietta's sidekick Fritz Andrzej Filonczyk sported a decent baritone and an engaging manner, without effacing memories of Gerald Finley at Covent Garden. In sum, Die tote Stadt proved its worth as a repertoire piece—and the single performance at the summer festival should not be missed by Kaufmann-spotters—but one wonders how long it could survive on the playbill without a Kaufmann.

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