Facing Grief: Die tote Stadt at the Oper Wuppertal

Korngold – Die tote Stadt

Paul – Jason Wickson
Marie/Marietta – Susanne Serfling
Frank/Pierrot – Simon Stricker
Brigitta – Ariana Lucas
Juliette – Anna Martha Schuitemaker
Lucienne – Iris Marie Sojer
Victorin – Jeon Sangmin
Graf Albert – Mark Bowman-Hester

Opernchor der Wuppertaler Bühnen, Sinfonieorchester Wuppertal / Johannes Pell.
Stage director – Immo Karaman

Oper Wuppertal, Wuppertal, Germany.  Saturday, June 22nd, 2019.

Tonight, my tour of the regional German theatres took me to the Oper Wuppertal.  It’s a beautiful house, lovingly restored, and intimate in size.  The venue is notable for some stimulating programming, with a repertoire that consists not only of the usual classics, but also a good number of performances of the music of today.  Ticket prices are extremely affordable (and also include transit to the theatre) and seats and sightlines are both very good.

Photo: © Wil van Iersel

Die tote Stadt is undergoing a major revival, with performances proliferating in both regional and international houses.  It deserves to, because it really is a magnificent work.  The Oper Wuppertal entrusted their new production to Immo Karaman, a new name to me.  He gives us a very intelligent, logical staging.  Set in a morgue, where Paul is confronted with the body of his dead wife, Karaman takes us on a journey through one man’s experience of grief.  One where he oscillates between rational acceptance, hallucinations and rage.

Photo: © Wil van Iersel

Karaman makes use of drapes to create fluid, constantly changing stage pictures.  At one moment revealing an image of Marie/Marietta having sex with Frank on a hospital table, another with dead flowers suddenly becoming alive  Karaman exposes the secrets of his staging to us gradually – Act 2 reveals a wrecked car, leading us to conclude that Marie had died in an accident.  Again, Karaman sets up a memorable stage picture with Marietta and her troupe fooling around the wreckage of the car while Paul sat in front, head in hands, unwilling to face what was happening or to listen.  Karaman gives us a reading that’s very much based in the text, nowhere more so than in an unbearably moving final tableau.  As Paul reprises the lute song, peering through the door of the morgue, he sings ‘hier gibt es kein Auferstehn’.  At that moment, Karaman and his cast really manage to get to the core of the beauty and nostalgia within.  I found it heartbreaking.

Photo: © Wil van Iersel

Musically, the evening reflected well on the standards of the house.  The show was dominated by Susanne Serfling’s Marie/Marietta.  The owner of a bright, well-placed soprano with a creamy core within a slightly chalky exterior, she had stage presence to spare.  The voice coped easily with the high, soaring lines, taking wing with impressive ease.  Everything she did was sung off the text and she threw herself into Karaman’s vision with a magnetic energy that held the stage.  Jason Wickson was a brave Paul.  It’s a beast of a part and Wickson sang with determination and grit.  His beefy tenor is bright in tone, but the role lies somewhat high for him, although he resorted to a very full voix mixte in places.  The text was admirably clear and he made it to the end.  He’s also an engaging actor and sang with dignity throughout.

Photo: © Wil van Iersel

In the remainder of the cast, Ariana Lucas was stretched by Brigitta’s high soaring lines, leaving the very highest reaches out rather than going for it.  I’d certainly like to hear her warm, dusky contralto in a more suitable assignment in the future though.  Simon Stricker sang the Pierrot lied in a firm baritone, striking the required melancholic mood.  The remaining roles were confidently dispatched.  The sopranos of the house chorus had some disagreements in pitch in their wordless, off-stage accompaniment to the Pierrot lied, while the children’s chorus was excellent.

Photo: © Wil van Iersel

The house orchestra was on very fine form for Johannes Pell.  Hearing this work in such an intimate theatre gave us the opportunity to hear so much detail in the score and Pell brought out the full technicolour sweep of Korngold’s writing.  The strings had gossamer lightness, while the harps were wonderfully forward in the orchestra textures.  The brass was well behaved, but it must be admitted that there were a few ragged entries in the band here and there.  Pell led a fluent reading for the most part, although there was a tendency to slow down inordinately in places – the lute song in particular – and it was clear the singers would have appreciated it sped up a little.  The quality of the orchestral playing was most impressive.

Photo: © Wil van Iersel

Tonight’s tote Stadt was a real credit to this enterprising house.  It was well played, in a highly intelligent and cogent staging that concluded in a deeply moving final tableau.  Always honourably sung, it was capped by a commanding account of that magnetic prima donna role by Susanne Serfling – a singer most certainly worth looking out for.

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