'Die tote Stadt' Doesn't Measure Up

By Paul Moor

MusicalAmerica.com

February 4, 2004

 

BERLIN -- If Europe has many more beautiful little medieval gems than Belgium's Bruges, I have yet to discover them. It began as a Gallo-Roman port settlement about 2,000 years ago; the name Bruges dates from the middle of the ninth century. As its commercial importance has declined over the years, its current population has shrunk to about half the 45,000 it could boast between the 13th and 15th centuries. The miasma of decadence hanging over the ancient city appealed to the symbolist Georges Rodenbach, and he entitled the novel he set there "Bruges la morte" -- "Bruges the Dead."

Belgian decadent Romanticism has a flavor somehow all its own, as the Viennese composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold made clear to the operatic world when he turned to Rodenbach's novel as pabulum for the opera he entitled, with equal forthrightness, "Die tote Stadt" -- "The Dead City." In 1920, its prodigious 23-year-old composer enjoyed simultaneous big-league premieres in Cologne and Hamburg. On Jan. 25, the Deutsche Oper Berlin opened a new production of it conducted by Christian Thielemann, with less than complete success. For openers, in the post-Freudian era one has difficulty keeping a straight face when confronted with some of this plot's utterly incredible paranormal absurdities.

This opera in this house automatically evokes vivid memories among Berlin opera-goers active in 1983, when the late Götz Friedrich's unforgotten production (which also did a guest appearance at the newly created Los Angeles Music Center Opera) opened with Karan Armstrong and James King in the leading roles. That circumstance has impelled Frederik Hanssen to begin his Tagesspiegel review of this new production thus:

"It is an open secret that towards the end of the [20-year] Götz Friedrich era at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, a state of war prevailed. Negotiations between Generalintendant [Friedrich] and Generalmusikdirektor [Thielemann] were possible only through diplomatic intermediary. Then the great stage director and Theatermann Friedrich died, and his successor Udo Zimmermann served notice to the conductor. Yet he soon had to experience the re-enthronement of the extremely popular maestro -- and shortly thereafter his own Demontage."

Hanssen goes on to interpret Thielemann's choice of "Die tote Stadt" for his own first new production here in his own house since 2001 as his personal settling a still-open score with Friedrich. "Friedrich's staging of 'The Dead City' numbers among the very great, legendary successes of that Musiktheatermacher, from the third year of his regency at the Deutsche Oper, not least due to a television production." From Hanssen's perspective, Thielemann hoped to settle a score by "overtrumping Friedrich's great deed then -- and failed all along the line."

Germane to this psychological situation but elegantly omitted from Hanssen's account: Thielemann's almost insulting attitude towards Friedrich's Montana-born wife Karan Armstrong, a Lotte Lehmann protégée in California who came to the Met by winning the Metropolitan Auditions of the Air. Her combination of both acting and singing talent won Friedrich's heart in more ways than one, resulting in an authentic love match that ended only with the great director's death three years ago last month. Understandably, he loved working with her professionally, and as time passed he rarely did a production anywhere without her as the soprano lead. In-house sources say Thielemann indirectly got back at his boss by bad-mouthing Armstrong, even to the extent of saying she had no place in "his" opera house.

So much for ugly Berlin operatic background to this new production. Whatever Thielemann himself might say for having chosen this Korngold score, reviews showed some fairly sharply divided opinions. The French stage director Philippe Arlaud came off worst, reaping some vociferous boos from the premiere audience. Frederik Hanssen summed up his own sentiments in one sentence: "After this evening, Thielemann's holding on to Philippe Arlaud is inexplicable" -- Arlaud had done "Die Frau ohne Schatten" with Thielemann in this house six years ago, followed by a Bayreuth "Tannhäuser" together. For doing his own set design in this production (for which Andrea Uhmann provided the costumes), including a stage so sharply canted that some singers showed visible difficulty in maintaining their footing, Arlaud got severely panned. The Muppets of blessed memory enjoyed vast popularity dubbed into German for television here, and their fans must have included Manuel Brug, for his review in the national daily Die Welt described one set as "Schweine im Opernweltraum" - "Pigs in Opera Space."

Thielemann revels in the German Romantic repertoire, and more Romantic than "Die tote Stadt" opera rarely gets, but on this opening night he did the opposite of letting his devoted orchestra spread itself emotionally, keeping things in the pit rather on the cool side.

As Marietta and her spooky double Marie, Silvana Dussmann displayed a strong and true luminous soprano, but for some mysterious reason almost threw away her own luscious aria "Glück, das mir verblieb." Stephen Gould, as Paul, visually disadvantaged by one of the season's ugliest costumes, gloried in a big tenor voice that showed his Wagnerian training and background; with Thielemann conducting, he will sing Siegfried in Bayreuth in 2006.

In three brief baritone scenes, David Pittman-Jennings as Frank especially stood out. His credits include opera in Graz, Lyon, Nice, Paris, Toulouse, and Vienna, as well as Berlin, among them highly acclaimed appearances as Alban Berg's Wozzeck and in Peter Stein's production of Schoenberg's "Moses und Aron" with Pierre Boulez conducting, but I couldn't help wondering whether he had used that hyphenated surname also in his native Arizona.

Among far too many of the singers, epidemic mushmouth prevailed. I generously tried to ascribe that impediment at least partially to my Texan ears, but I rejoiced to read Volker Blech's appeal in his Berliner Morgenpost review: "The Deutsche Oper would be well advised in this German-language opera to accommodate the audience with supertitles."