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Excellent German TV production of Erich Wolfgang Korngold's unjustly forgotten opera...but no English subtitles on the DVD!
Korngold's once phenomenally successful opera, first performed simultaneously in the German cities of Hamburg and Cologne in 1920 when the composer was only 23 years old, is vividly brought to life in this superior German TV production, which was produced in 1983 by the Deutsche Oper Berlin opera company and was partly responsible for the gradual rehabilitation of this three-act opera in the European repertoire in recent times.
Freely adapted from Georges Rodenbach's 1892 novel "Bruges-la-Morte" by Erich and his father Julius (under the pen name "Paul Schott"), the story of DIE TOTE STADT is simple: Paul (played by the late tenor James King, who resembles 1940s Belgian-born actor Victor Francen with his thin mustache), mourning over the loss of his beautiful blonde wife Marie in the Belgian city of Bruges, is ecstatic to encounter her exact double one day, the flirtatious opera dancer Marietta (played by soprano Karan Armstrong, who resembles a curvaceous and strawberry blonde version of Myrna Loy). After he invites Marietta to his home to sing and dance for him, she is surprised to find a giant portrait of Marie upstairs. After Marietta leaves to attend her rehearsal, Paul, torn by his loyalty to the deceased Marie and his longing for the living Marietta, imagines his brief, doomed romance with Marietta that will bloom and wither in the weeks to come. Most of the opera takes place as a fantasy in Paul's troubled mind, from the ghost of Marie (also played by Armstrong) appearing to Paul to encourage him to go out into life to a demonic church procession invading Paul's home the morning after Marietta has seduced Paul.
Mr. King is exceptional as Paul, the romantic yet obsessive and delusional protagonist. Under the direction of Brian Large, the Kansas-born James King delivers all his singing and acting prowess to create a meticulous and memorable portrayal of a lost soul. There are several individual and subtle elements that make his performance so appealing: the horizontal movement of his hand while describing the shimmering canal waters of Bruges in one of his more romantic arias, his charming stroking and inhaling a bouquet of red roses before Marietta's arrival, his misty eyes and dazed movements while reacting to the gorgeous and haunting aria "Glück, das mir verblieb", and his defeatist sobs while arguing with Marietta during a highly dramatic confrontation. He's wonderful.
The Montana-born Karan Armstrong as Marie/Marietta exudes otherworldliness as the ghostly Marie as well as sex appeal and playfulness as Marietta. It's a difficult dual role, but she pulls it off very well with her tremendous lung power and sensual, well-shaped figure. Special mention should go to baritone William Murray in the dual role of Frank/Fritz, Paul's friend in reality and a Pierrot clown in Paul's fantasy, and mezzo-soprano Margit Neubauer as Brigitta, Paul's faithful housekeeper.
The production values are impressive, featuring a spacious and somewhat Expressionist interior for Paul's home in the first and third acts and a slightly flooded square of Bruges in the second act. The 1920s costume design, which includes double-breasted suits and homburg hats for the males and simple dresses for the females, is unassuming in the reality scenes yet colorful and opulent in Paul's fantasy. Kudos to the camera and editing crew members for using traditional cinematic techniques like close-up shots, zooms, dissolves, multiple exposures, and quick cuts in order to prevent the production from descending into a dully and amateurishly presented "filmed play" style.
For all its virtues, the production has its few flaws. Firstly, some passages from the German libretto and the music score are excised in order to accommodate a two-hour running time. Secondly, the Deutsche Oper Berlin orchestra is pretty competent yet it drowns out the singing voices of King and Armstrong once or twice throughout the opera (a very common mistake in the performing arts, nevertheless). Thirdly and most importantly, Large has modified Korngold's original optimistic ending in favor of a more pessimistic ending, perhaps in order to prove Paul's extreme, obsessive love for the deceased Marie and his strong mental and emotional torment after experiencing such a vivid fantasy. But whether this modified ending is a good or bad decision by the director is up to the viewer to decide, and the aforementioned flaws can easily be ignored.
A bare-bones DVD of this first-rate production, containing a pristine print, is currently only available online on the Premiere Opera website for a total of thirteen dollars. However, as this production was intended for German television audiences, there are no English subtitles. I strongly suggest those who are unfamiliar with the opera or the German language to consult an English translation of the libretto while watching, especially since the opera company's general director, Götz Friedrich, introduces a brief biography of Korngold and a synopsis of the opera at the beginning. Incidentally, an English-translated libretto is included in the two-disc RCA Victor recording of DIE TOTE STADT, featuring René Kollo as Paul and Carol Neblett as Marie/Marietta under the conduction of Erich Leinsdorf with the Munich Radio Orchestra. This CD version is widely considered to be the best available recording of this forgotten opera and is the ideal companion piece for this DVD.
By all means, this TV production of DIE TOTE STADT is a must-see for all Korngold and opera fans. But I only hope a more legitimate DVD company will release a version with English subtitles sometime soon!
Those interested in DIE TOTE STADT may also be interested in reading my review on the Kollo/Neblett/Leinsdorf recording on Amazon.com.
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