Bruges hates Erich Korngold’s famous first opera. Cast centre stage as the quaint city that has lost all purpose – The Dead City (Die tote Stadt) – home to Paul, obsessed with maintaining a shrine to his dead wife, Marie, the medieval jewel has been, say its admirers, libelled.

To this day, the city attempts to strike back. visitbruges.be mounts a Korngold counterblast, the Ooooh! Bruges walking guide. Come off it, Erich, this is a vibrant hub. There are four attractive walks, no less. The Local Love brochure offers even more exciting news, that “Bruges already has quite a few shops that offer that bit more”. Overnight visitors are invited to “breathe in the historical silence.”

It’s difficult not to conclude that maybe the wunderkind composer had a point. Bruges, with its pious medieval processions and rituals, was trapped in a historical time capsule, from which no number of Ooooh! Bruges walks was likely to free it. Good choice for a dark, atmospheric psycho-thriller of an opera.

The Dead City was written in 1920, when Europe was swept with conflicting emotions of grief and hope. How to reconcile the disastrous legacy of the First World War with the dawning of a new age? As it turned out, that new age in Europe spawned fascism and the Second World War, but Korngold was pointing to a more hopeful future. In the end, he would have to flee the Nazis.

The more versions of The Dead City I see, the more I am convinced that Korngold, only 23 at the time of composing the opera, was issuing a timely warning about the need to relinquish the past to embrace the future. Paul’s obsession with his dead wife mirrored Europe’s obsession with its lost history. This sounds like a salutary warning.

The work is heavily influenced by the then obsession with the ideas of Sigmund Freud. Paul’s inner mind drives his outward actions. His maintenance of a shrine to his dead wife, the veneration of memorabilia, especially a braided length of blond hair, is truly the stuff of the famous psychiatrist’s couch.

Bruges venerates its religious relics in traditional candlelit processions. Paul worships in parallel, but at home. Korngold’s purpose is to break the unhealthy spell.

The Dead City was wildly popular in the 1920s, one of the most performed operas of its day. But, with the advent of atonalism, Korngold’s fluent musicality became unfashionable in classical music circles, and the work gathered dust until the present era when it is now regaining traction.

This is exactly why English National Opera (ENO) rightly decided it was time to mount an English language version, reaching out to a wider audience.

Productions of this genre are exactly why ENO exists as an independent opera company. By no means a certain popular success, The Dead City is packing in live audiences, giving ENO even more ammunition in its prolonged battle to mitigate thoughtless Arts Council funding cuts.

What’s more, the production director is Annilese Miskimmon, ENO’s own Artistic Director, and a fine job she has made of this very difficult opera.

First off, she has chosen to mark a clear boundary between Paul’s real world and the fantasy of replacing Marie with Marietta, a dancer temptress with whom he falls in love and sees as a reincarnation of his wife. We always know where we are. Bruges is introduced through smoke shrouded religious processions.

Then, she has not shied away from some spectacular effects. I have three favourites. Marietta, descending pole-dancer-like from the ceiling atop a chandelier; a phalanx of processing children bursting into Paul’s shrine from the fireplace; and the dead Marie entering, again from the ceiling, reclining on a couch/sarcophagus device. The hallucinatory impact was perfect. What on earth was Paul smoking?

Here’s what happens in Bruges.

Paul, sung by experienced Swiss tenor, Rolf Romei, can’t come to terms with the tragic death of his young wife Marie. He has wandered the streets of Bruges alone for the five years since, cut off from life and human contact, maintaining a shrine to his wife’s memory in his house, including a braid of Marie’s golden hair, mounted in a glass case.

Until today, no one except Paul and his housekeeper, Brigitta, the wonderful mezzo soprano, Sarah Connolly, have had access to the room. Miskimmon evokes the tantalising idea that Brigitta’s loyalty to Paul may at any time stray towards a romantic hope.

Act I

Paul’s friend, Frank, is visiting the city after a long absence. In other productions he is a traveller, or a soldier. Here he is a priest, which leads to bizarre consequences when, in Paul’s fantasy, he falls for Marietta. Not sure that role really works.

Brigitta shows him the shrine that Paul has created. He has unexpectedly announced that the house should be unlocked and filled with roses.

When Paul returns home, he insists that Marie is alive. He excitedly tells Frank about a woman he has met who so closely resembles Marie that he believes she has been reincarnated. He has invited the woman – Marietta – to visit him at home.

Floozy alarm!! Rupert Murdoch, pay attention. Despite Frank warning him of the dangers of such fantasies, Paul remains convinced that his wife has returned to him.

Marietta arrives at the house. She is a dancer with a visiting company who are performing Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable, a spook-fest in its own right, at the local theatre. Paul places Marie’s shawl around her shoulders, recreating, without revealing why, a treasured photograph of his wife.

He asks Marietta to sing a song about two lovers who will soon be parted by death, which Marie used to sing. On discovering a picture of Marie and realising how similar they both look, Marietta is unnerved. She makes her excuses to leave, forgetting to take her umbrella.

Paul is torn between his loyalty to Marie and his fascination with Marietta. He begins to hallucinate and sees Marie alive again before his eyes. She urges him to admit that he is tempted by Marietta.

Act II 

Paul’s hallucinatory state continues. He encounters strange visions from his subconscious, firstly Brigitta, who has left his service and joined a convent as a nun.

She tells him she considers his taking up with Marietta a betrayal of Marie’s memory, despite Paul’s protests that he never broke faith with his late wife. Then a version of Frank appears and warns Paul that his attraction to Marietta is unhealthy, though it becomes clear that he himself is now a rival for her affections and keeps a token of her love. A bit odd when he’s a local prelate!

Next, a gaggle of Marietta’s admirers arrive, partying in advance of her expected arrival. Eventually, the imaginary Marietta flirts with everyone but the seemingly invisible Paul, including Frank, who she asks to sing a serenade.

She then suggests they rehearse a scene from Robert le diable in which a character called Hélène will be irresistibly played by Marietta. Her allure in this role drives Paul mad with jealousy and he forces the performance to stop. Marietta sends her friends away before she and Paul argue violently.

She finally realises that Paul’s obsession with her is because of her resemblance to Marie and decides to confront the challenge of her dead rival. Insisting Paul should love her for herself, he imagines she overcomes his guilt at finding her so sexually attractive. His fantasy of Marietta intends to sever the dead Marie’s hold over Paul, and he imagines them making love.

Act III The following morning – Paul’s fantasy continues

After spending the night with Paul, Marietta directly confronts the Marie ghost figure. Paul hallucinates a religious procession passing by. He observes the procession from the shrine: the prayers and music have awakened his remorse at betraying his wife.

Increasingly exasperated by Paul’s obsession with death and the past, Marietta starts to taunt him by dancing seductively while stroking the braid of Marie’s hair. Paul is outraged by the desecration; he grabs the braid and strangles the imaginary Marietta with it.

Epilogue

Paul’s fantasy ends and the scene reverts to just moments after the real Marietta’s first visit to Paul’s house. Her lifeless body is nowhere to be seen and the precious braid of Marie’s hair remains untouched in its glass case. He realises it was all an hallucination – everything is as it was.

Brigitta announces Marietta’s return: she has forgotten her umbrella and flowers and comes back to collect them. Frank returns and Paul tells him that he will not see Marietta again. When Frank declares that he is leaving the city, Paul decides to do likewise. The power that Marie’s memory exerted over him has been broken and he can pick up his life again – forever changed by grief and loss, but, in the fashionable phrase du mode, “moving on”.

Bar a few quibbles, this was a fine ENO effort. Romei’s voice was not great on the night. A plague of frogs occasionally made themselves manifest in broken phrases. Off nights occur and the tenor deserved respect for soldiering on.

Soprano, Jillian Finnamore stood in for Allison Oakes, who was indisposed, as Marietta and the voice of Marie. As often happens with stand-ins, she was brilliant. It helped that she was familiar with the role, having performed it recently with Regent’s Opera. She certainly maxed the vamp in the seduction scenes. If the production had an intimacy director, it must have been his/her/its night off.

Connolly was a surprise casting. Top flight performer for a not so top flight character, Yet, Brigitta, although not a constant in the opera, is Paul’s link to reality and so is more than a supernumerary loyal flunky. Of course, Connolly sang with commanding authority. When does she not?

The conductor was Kirill Karabits, whose tenure as Chief Conductor of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, has been marked by some extraordinary recordings. Karabits delivered Korngold’s score in all its lushness.

Korngold is often loftily dismissed as little more than a “Hollywood” composer. Wrong. For starters he did not travel to Hollywood until 1934, fourteen years after The Dead City. And the truth is, Hollywood followed Korngold’s pace-setting film score music, not the other way round.

I asked Annilese Miskimmon before the performance why she chose to direct The Dead City:

“I used to watch old Hollywood movies with my grandfather as a child. He was not trained in any way but very musical and could play the piano by ear. He loved films with big, luscious scores and with huge drama.

I didn’t know I was listening to Korngold but years later I put two and two together and tracked down his operas. And who can resist such an amazing, weird, psychological story as The Dead City?”

Personal liking for the music aside, why is the opera a good choice for ENO?

“The novella it is based on, Bruges-la-Morte, is pithy, shocking and weird – and a great choice of a subject, also inspiring Hitchcock’s Vertigo, of course. The music is incredibly powerful and atmospheric and drives the psychological depth of the plot in such an ambitious way. It’s so dramatic, yet so heartfelt too.

Irresistible as an evening of opera in the Coli. ENO wants to search out the unmissable and this is one of those events!”

It was the revelation of that psychological depth of plot that makes Miskimmon’s The Dead City such an important milestone for ENO and lays down another positive marker in the sand for her producing ambitions.

Even in the depths of a crisis that would have floored most opera companies, ENO continues to deliver original, homegrown work of the highest quality.

And another thing!

Pioneering London opera company, OperaGlass Works, has another project on the go. During lockdown the company produced a stunning film version of Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, reviewed in Reaction.

The “faute de mieux” transformation of a work originally intended for live performance at Wilton’s Music Hall into a filmed version, was possibly a blessing in disguise. Now, the two indomitable life forces behind OperaGlass, Selina Cadell and Eliza Thompson, the terrible opera twins, are planning a filmed version of Puccini’s La traviata.

Bubbling with enthusiasm over a coffee at Tuttons in Covent Garden, they gave me the third degree. The work is to be shot in English countryside and “a wonderful location in London”. There was no escape from opera at Tuttons.

Turned out our waiter was a fan, making use of ENO’s under 21 free ticket programme to introduce himself to “that other place, not Covent Garden”. Objective evidence ENO reaches the audience other companies don’t. Arts Council, tick the box!

Back at OperaGlass much was learned about the relationship between singer and camera during the filming of The Turn of the Screw and La traviata will build on that. This approach allows small, nimble enterprises like OperaGlass Works to reach a much wider audience than live performance on its own.

Visit their Lookbook here to see the exciting plans – and be part of it by supporting OperaGlass Works here. You can even sponsor buttons for Violetta’s dress! Who wouldn’t?

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