A Clever New Robert Carsen Production of Die tote Stadt at the Komische Oper

GermanyGermany Korngold, Die tote Stadt: Komische Oper Orchestra, Chorus and Kinderchorus/ Ainars Rubikis (conductor), Komische Oper, Berlin, 6.10.2018. (JMI)

Die tote Stadt © I. Freese
Die tote Stadt © I. Freese

Paul – Ales Briscein
Marietta/Marie – Sara Jakubiak
Frank/Fritz – Günther Papendell
Brigitta – Maria Fiselier
Juliette – Georgina Melville
Lucienne – Marta Mika
Victorin – Adrian Strooper
Count Albert: Ivan Tursic

Direction – Robert Carsen
Sets – Michael Levine
Costumes – Petra Reinhardt
Lighting – Robert Carsen and Peter van Praet
Choreography – Rebecca Howell

On recent trips to Berlin, I have considered it almost obligatory to visit the Komische Oper, where the offerings are usually of great interest. There’s no doubt that the impetus for this is Barrie Kosky’s presence as Artistic Director: he’s one of the best stage directors of our time. On this occasion, there is a new production of Die tote Stadt by Robert Carsen, whose work is often seen in the world’s great opera houses. The result has been an original production with an intriguing final outcome, a strong musical version and a pleasing cast.

It is curious how this Korngold opera has been gaining in popularity. Before the 1990s, Die tote Stadt was a real rarity; while I can’t say that it has become an opera of the great repertoire, it is not so unusual to see it done in major opera houses. It is an appealing work, and one that is easy to listen to.

Robert Carsen’s production is attractive and rather classic for the most part; his personal contribution comes at the end. A director should be at the service of the opera and not the other way around, and that has always been the case with Robert Carsen. Even this time, where the outcome is groundbreaking, one cannot say that he moves away from or goes against what the libretto says.

The opera tells the story of the widower Paul, obsessed with the death of Marie, his young wife, who has turned his house into a temple of memories. His meeting in Act I with Marietta, a young dancer whom he considers the reincarnation of his deceased wife, leads him to live a nightmare in the following two acts, which ends with his murder of Marietta. Only in the last ten minutes of the opera does Paul wake from this hallucination and see that everything has been a dream; he then decides to leave the city of Bruges and his memories.

In Robert Carsen’s version, when Paul awakens from his dream the young Marietta’s corpse is still in the room, although he does not notice it. His brief subsequent dialogues with Brigitta, his maid, and his friend Frank do not take place on stage; he only hears their voices. The same thing happens with Marietta’s final visit to collect her belongings; we hear her voice, but she is not there. Quite simply, Paul has lost his mind and does not remember anything about what happened. The opera ends with the entry on stage of Frank and Brigitta who take Paul not away from Bruges but, clearly, to a psychiatric asylum. Carsen accomplishes all these changes cleverly and without altering the libretto at all – everything seems to be possible and even logical.

Carsen’s staging is always attractive and perfectly matched to the plot. There is a big bedroom in which Acts I and III take place; it’s where Marie has died and Paul keeps his mementos. The walls open in Act II to reveal the outside world and Marietta’s dancing troupe. The costumes are modern and attractive, the lighting effective, and the choreography is remarkable.

Conductor Ainars Rubikis is the current musical director of the Komische Oper. His reading was full of life and energy, and he showed great care for the singers. This was the first time I had seen him conduct, and he made a very positive impression. The orchestra, chorus and children’s chorus all gave fine performances.

In this production the character of Paul is on stage practically from the beginning to the end of the opera, and the role was convincingly interpreted by tenor Ales Briscein. His voice is somewhat light, especially in comparison with other tenors who have sung the part in recent years.

The best singing came from soprano Sara Jakubiak, who was a persuasive Marietta, both as actress and singer, and in the dance scenes of Act II as well. She lived the character with great intensity and conviction.

Baritone Günter Papendell, who is a frequent presence at the Komische Oper, did well in the part of Frank, Paul’s friend, and played Pierrot in the second act. A good impression was also made by mezzo-soprano Maria Fiselier in the character of Brigitta. The secondary characters were well covered.

The Komische Oper was nearly sold out, and the audience gave a warm reception to the artists in the final bows, and especially to Sara Jakubiak.

José M. Irurzun

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