Obsession and Fantasy: Die tote Stadt from the Oper Köln

Korngold – Die tote Stadt

Paul – Burkhard Fritz
Marie/Marietta – Aušrinė Stundytė
Frank/Pierrot – Wolfgang Stefan Schwaiger
Brigitta – Dalia Schaechter
Juliette – Anna Malesza-Kutny
Lucienne – Regina Richter
Victorin – John Heuzenroeder
Graf Albert – Martin Koch

Knaben und Mädchen der Kölner Dommusik, Chor der Oper Köln, Gürzenich Orchester Köln / Gabriel Feltz.
Stage director – Tatjana Gürbaca.  Video director – Marcus Richardt.

Oper Köln, Staatenhaus Saal 1, Cologne, Germany.  Friday, December 4th, 2020.  Streamed via oper.koeln

This was to have been one of the highlights of the operatic year, Korngold’s opera making its return to the city and the opera company where it was co-premiered exactly one hundred years ago.  Alas, due to the stringent sanitary regulations in place in Germany, performing in front of a live audience was out of the question.  Undeterred, the Oper Köln made the decision that this centennial production was too important to miss and made it available via streaming on its website.  Rather than offering it completely free of charge, the house instead is streaming the show at set times, available on a ‘pay what you can’ basis to viewers.  This is a good compromise between the need to make art available to a wider public, but also to attempt to recoup some of the costs that were also underwritten by the generosity of the Freunde der Kölner Oper and the Kuratorium der Oper Köln.

Photo: © Paul Leclaire

The stage direction of this important new staging was confided to Tatjana Gürbaca.  Making use of the Staatenhaus’s unique spaces, she places the action on a central set (Stefan Heyne) with the orchestra to the right of the stage and the chorus to the left.  The set itself is a circular stage, around which bar stools are organized.  Occasionally the central stage area is shrouded in drapes, at times upon which movie images are displayed, at others open and revolving to provide differing views on the action.  Perhaps the most 2020 stage picture was the model at the opening with a bare breast but her face covered with a mask.  Gürbaca’s staging is a shadowy world, one where we are left wondering what may or may not be real.  After all, this is a story about a man who sees his dead wife reincarnated in a visiting danseuse.  Gürbaca uses the movie fragments (by Sandra van Slooten and Volker Maria Engel), with hints of film noir, to raise questions about what we actually saw – did Burkhard Fritz’s Paul murder Marie, incarnated by Aušrinė Stundytė, in a car accident, or did she take her own life by cutting her throat?  This is at least what the imagery suggested in Act 2.  In Act 3 we saw her drowning in the bath – again was this real or imagined?  In Act 2, the dancing troupe taunted Paul by trapping him in a glass booth upon which they write the word ‘Mörder’.

This is a staging, then, that focuses on death, obsession and fantasy.  This element of fantasy isn’t restricted to the two central characters.  Dalia Schaechter’s Brigitta is a much bigger personality than we often see, taunting Paul during the procession by playing with some of Marie’s artifacts, or in Act 1 hitting him with the roses when he dared think of Marie.  Indeed, the way she hands Paul a cigarette after he apparently murders Marietta, and the look of satisfaction on her face, suggests that she had an obsession of her own.  Yet, in creating this world where one loses a sense of what is real or imagined, Gürbaca doesn’t always answer the questions she poses herself.  In a key respect, Gürbaca stays very true to the work, giving us precisely that sense of disorientation that Paul must feel.  At the same time, one cannot help but ask oneself the same question Paul does, towards the end of Act 3, ‘was hab ich geschaut?’.  Were these the imaginative ravings of a man who’d had a few too many cocktails in a fancy bar?  The dead body in the middle of the stage, and Paul’s bloodied shirt, suggest something else.  Where I find Gürbaca’s staging less successful is in exploring the effects of grief after loss – that contextualizing of Paul’s grief that would make his journey complete.  Instead, Gürbaca gives us a perhaps more cynical view of the work, one darker and more dysfunctional than one might expect.

Photo: © Paul Leclaire

Musically, this was a satisfactory evening.  The two central roles are of course brutal assignments for those who take them on, though in these circumstances, thanks to the microphones and no need to project across the huge orchestra to the public in the room, this gave the principals the opportunity to add more light and shade than they otherwise might.  This was definitely the case for Fritz’s Paul.  He gave us vocalism that was utterly secure in an extremely challenging role.  Yet he was never afraid to pull back on the tone, offering well supported softer singing in his moments of reverie.  His legato does have a tendency to be somewhat lumpy though, with aspirates entering the line betraying some of the heavy lifting in places.  While one is grateful for the security with which he sang, I did wish that he had dispatched his cry of ‘lass mich’ to Marietta after the procession with slightly more ferocious desperation.

Photo: © Paul Leclaire

Stundytė was riveting as Marietta, her stage presence, even through the small screen, utterly magnetic.  Her soprano is a distinctive instrument, at times somewhat thick in tone, at others dusky.  This is a voice and stage presence that has to be experienced live, where one can fully appreciate the fine details of vocal colour that Stundytė deploys.  Here, she floated the tone delicately on high in the lute song, sustaining the line with ease despite Gabriel Feltz’s funereal tempo. In Act 3, she pealed out on high, the voice soaring ever higher with thrilling uninhibitedness, taunting Paul and commanding the stage in the meantime.  There were a few passing moments where the voice didn’t quite sit exactly on the note but this was, once again, an extremely detailed, intelligent, and above all vivid incarnation from this gifted singing-actor.

Photo: © Paul Leclaire

Schaechter was also a highly watchable Brigitta and one who also sang the role so well, where so many before her have come to grief.  She soared with ease in the opening scene, the extensive tessitura causing no issues.   Wolfgang Stefan Schwaiger sang his glorious aria with easy lyricism in a burnished baritone, that had a charming fast vibrato in its upper reaches.  He did sound slightly taxed by a tempo that was several notches slower than desirable, but his handsome tone gave much pleasure.  He was accompanied by the generously vibrating ladies of the chorus in their vocalise.  The remainder of the cast reflected the high standards of the house.  The chorus also sang with vibrant tone in the procession, the tenors shining out of the texture.

Photo: © Paul Leclaire

Feltz’s conducting was surefooted but also somewhat curious.  There were several places where it felt far too ponderous for my taste – the opening scene, the lute song, and the Pierrot-Lied.  At the same time, he conjured up sweeping vistas of the Flemish city in the soaring orchestral sound, even as recorded here, bringing out a remarkable range of orchestral colour.  The jabbing thrusts of Act 3 were absolutely unanimous in attack.  The Gürzenich Orchester rewarded him with first class playing, every section completely secure.

Photo: © Paul Leclaire

As so often, we owe a debt of gratitude to the Oper Köln for allowing us the opportunity to see this centennial production, despite the fact that the house was closed to the public.  Gürbaca’s production gave us much to think about – a vision of the work that is darker, more cynical even, that one might expect.  In doing so it removes the complex humanity at its core, seemingly unwilling to explore the implications of grief and loss, but instead focuses on obsession and fantasy.  It’s an interesting reading, certainly, but one that feels incomplete.  Vocally, it was a highly satisfying assumption, and while I did have reservations about Feltz’s conducting, the orchestral playing was superb.  Certainly worth a few hours of your time.

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