Standing Ovations Greet Wermland Opera’s Die tote Stadt

01/03/2016

Korngold, Die tote Stadt:. Soloists, Wermland Opera Orchestra, Johannes Gustavsson (conductor). Wermland Opera, Karlstad, 27 February 2016 (Premiere). (GF)

Production:

Directed by Sofia Jupither
Set design by Lars-Åke Thessman
Costumes: Maria Geber
Lighting design: Magnus Mikaelsen
Choreography: Roger Lybeck
Mask & Wig design: Ulrika Nilsson

Cast:

Paul – Daniel Frank
Marie/Marietta – AnnLouice Lögdlund
Frank – Marcus Jupither
Brigitta – Ulrika Tenstam
Juliette – Anna-Maria Krawe
Lucienne – Rebecca Fjällsby
Victorin – Jonas Duran
Fritz  – Anders Larsson
Count Albert – Tobias Westman
Gaston  – Hans Nordström
Boy soprano – Herman Gummesson

Die tote Stadt, which was premiered simultaneously on 4 December 1920 in Hamburg and Cologne, was a tremendous success from the outset and opera houses everywhere queued up to mount it, including the Metropolitan Opera in New York. But when the Nazi regime came to power in Germany it was banned (Korngold was Jewish) and fell into oblivion. The revival came in 1967 at the Vienna Volksoper and in 1975 at the New York City Opera. By then interest in Korngold’s music at large was on its way, his film scores were recorded by RCA and the same company made the first recording of Die tote Stadt under Erich Leinsdorf and today the work is no stranger in the opera houses. In Sweden this is only the third production ever. Ystad Opera was first in 1987 and the Royal Opera in Stockholm mounted it in 1996 (also recorded and issued on CD by Naxos).

Wermland Opera has always been adventurous and considering the size of the orchestra and the venue (a beautiful building from 1893, designed by Axel Anderberg, who five years later designed the Royal Opera in Stockholm) seating 397 onlookers, one could fear that Korngold’s lavish orchestration would be compromised. In a way it was. Joakim Unander, who is alternate conductor of the production, has adapted the music for the forces available, reducing the brass and the woodwind and with only twenty strings at hand and fairly dry acoustics the sound is a mite subdued, chamber sized, if you like. Whether this is a drawback is open to debate, since there are also gains in the shape of a more transparent and analytical sound picture that allows the listener to hear more details and enjoy the ingenious use of the characteristic Korngold sonorities with harp and piano plus sundry percussion instrument as typical ingredients. Johannes Gustavsson, chief conductor at Wermland Opera since 2015, in any case kept all the strands of the complicated score in tight reins and the playing of the orchestra was assured.

The Dead City was Brügge as pictured in Georges Rodenbach’s symbolist novel Bruges-la-Morte (1892) – a city that once was an important cultural and business centre. When the all-important canal – the aorta and the connection with the sea – was filled with mud, Brügge lost its importance and started to decay. Lars-Åke Thessman’s sets illustrate this: the façades of the once majestic houses are lustreless and grey and the atmosphere is stale. And so is also the room where Paul, the central male character, lives, preserving the memory of his diseased and deeply beloved wife. The connection between the dead city and the dead Marie is further accentuated by the fact that when the scenes change in Act II and the action moves from the interior of Paul’s apartment to an open area in the city, this transformation is achieved by moving the walls of the flat outwards – the private tomb seamlessly becomes the public tomb.

Against this gloomy backdrop the internal relation drama unfolds: Paul, emotionally paralyzed and pinioned in his devotion of his wife; the young dancer Marietta, the very image of Marie, so full of vitality and lust for life. The long dialogues between Paul and Marietta are the core of this opera and the two roles need strong and expressive voices and, even more important, character actors, able to visualize their feelings and sentiments. Wermland Opera are lucky to have a couple worthy of the occasion. AnnLouice Lögdlund, who has been an important member of the company since 2000, has created many memorable characters during that time, but her Marietta is possibly the Crown jewel in her tiara.  There is a magic aura about her from her very first entrance and throughout the performance she chisels out a many faceted portrait: vivacious, strong, sensual, mysterious … Vocally she matches this with intensely dramatic and sensitive singing, crowned by a deeply felt and beautiful reading of the lute song, Glück, das mir verblieb, certainly one of the loveliest soprano solos in all opera, famously recorded in 1924 by Lotte Lehmann and Richard Tauber.

Tauber was primarily a lyrical tenor but the role of Paul needs a heroic voice and Daniel Frank, scheduled to sing the two Siegfrieds in Stockholm’s revival of the Ring next season, is the perfect answer to that need. Strong, steady, clarion tones, seemingly untiring and with an impressive array of softer nuances as well, allowed him to create a three-dimensional character. Together they carried the performance to a triumphant end.

But the rest of the cast were not just a group of nobodies. Marcus Jupither was an imposing big-voiced Frank, Ulrika Tenstam was suitably mysterious as the housekeeper Brigitta but vocally uneven. The Commedia dell’arte group in act II played well together and Anders Larsson delivered the other hit song, Pierrot’s Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen with restraint.

I have left the director, Sofia Jupither, to the last, simply because her spirit hovered over the production from beginning to end. She is primarily a theatre director but directed her first opera, Salome at the Stockholm Opera in 2013 with great success. As in that opera she is also in Die tote Stadt extremely careful with details, with the communication between the characters. Every gesture, every glance is carefully calculated but seems spontaneous. That is art concealing art.

The standing ovations that greeted the production were unanimous but wholly spontaneous. Wermland Opera can be congratulated to another smash hit!

Göran Forsling

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