ENO Response 2022/23: The Dead City Reviews
27th April 2023 in News
ENO Response is a scheme that offers aspiring writers the opportunity to review opera whilst receiving writing advice and feedback from industry mentors.
Annilese Miskimmon, the ENO’s Artistic Director, directs the new production of Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s The Dead City (Die tote Stadt). Promising to fulfil Miskimmon’s acclaimed directorial style, this production will find the romance at the heart of Korngold’s story, sung in English based on a translation by Kelley Rourke.
Composed in 1920 post-war Europe, Korngold’s cult classic opera The Dead City is a psychological exploration of loss. Grieving for his wife Marie, Paul shuts himself away in their home fixated on her memory, until an encounter with her doppelgänger turns the world on its head as he grapples with the blurred boundaries between his memories and newfound desires.
Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957)
Libretto by Paul Schott
Conductor, Kirill Karabits
Director, Annilese Miskimmon
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ENO Responders 22/23
Talent dead on its feet: Korngold’s Die tote Stadt
A stagnant city, a lost love and a new mistress, all undercut with jealousy and delirium: when the ENO marketed their production of Korngold’s The Dead City, directed by Annilese Miskimmon, as an ‘operatic psychological thriller’, it looked like a surefire win. Although composed in 1920, the opera only premiered in England in 2009, and this is its first outing in English: there is something very fresh about this production and its very contemporary depiction of self-deception and infatuation. Part of this, of course, comes from Korngold’s grand, fast-paced score, which conductor Kirill Karabits manages superbly. Korngold’s flair for the theatrical (which he would later take into film scores), mixed with the subtlety of the opera’s Symbolism is beautifully harnessed by Karabits, who draws out the radiant, flowing rhythms of the work and guides the music along to shadow the characters.
Vocal performances (especially projection-wise) are slightly more uneven, but nevertheless noteworthy, particularly housekeeper Brigitta’s (Dame Sarah Connolly) intense mezzo-soprano, sweet but not saccharine and superbly controlled. Audun Iversen as Frank/Fritz performs similarly well with a rich, tuneful baritone and a formidable stage presence, especially in the dream sequence when competing for Marietta’s attention. Beside these, Paul’s (Rolf Romei) voice is sometimes overshadowed, a tuneful tenor that cannot always distinguish itself from the orchestra (although the performer is recovering from illness). Romei’s best moments come in the dream sequence with Marietta, where he displays a prodigious talent for acting (shaking with awkwardness and then sexual repression before breaking down in equal parts pathetic despair and misogynistic rage): here, his voice matches the intensity of his performance, and a spellbinding tension fills the auditorium.
Marietta herself, played by Allison Oakes, gives an interesting performance. Towards the middle of the opera, her chemistry with Paul is fantastic, bringing out the powerful sexuality of the character and the influence it gives her. Her voice matches this, shining through the audience with impressive purity, while the versatility she shows as Marie’s voice, channelling a wistful, broken-hearted fragility, is also impressive. However, her performance is all too uneven. In the first act, for instance, her voice does nothing to rise above the ordinary, while the sexuality so key to her character is similarly absent at first, giving a stiffness to the Paul-Marietta scenes unsuited to the latter.
Fundamentally, Miskimmon’s creative direction feels lacking, missing what feel like obvious opportunities. The intensity in character dynamics is profoundly uneven, with Act Three feeling lacklustre compared to the powerful scenes preceding it. There is also little attempt to connect the story to the setting of Bruges, the eponymous Dead City which is so key in creating Paul’s way of life, by way of either lighting or set design, which is remarkably conservative. Aside from a fog-filled background, Miskimmon does not tap into the profoundly symbolist possibilities of Korngold’s dreamscape (barely making it clear that most of the opera is, in fact, a dream). Miskimmon’s production, while certainly intriguing, has the possibility for so much more.
Grief, drama and despair all seem like valid ingredients for an entertaining opera. Annilese Miskimmon’s production draws you in but, in reality, you’re faced with a pretty Dead City.
The plot itself is bland: Paul, consumed by the death of his beloved Marie, believes to have met her reincarnation. Marietta arrives onstage and, within a psychotic dream sequence, their toxic relationship ensues.
Korngold’s score is a certain by-product of German Romanticism, but you could almost hear the film music waiting to be composed. 3 hours of preparation for a Strauss or Puccini-like climax fizzles out to mild disappointment. Ukrainian conductor Kirill Karabits handles the work with sensitivity and the ENO orchestra continues their strong form. The sheer amount of tambourine leads me to slightly question Korngold’s orchestration, but the percussion section certainly delivered – not the timbre I’d personally associate with emotional manipulation.
Miskimmon’s production adapts the plot to entirely take place in Paul’s house. Although a clever concept, the result is one-dimensional. The set immediately looked like a cinema screen, fittingly referencing Korngold’s film-score legacy. It was breath-taking when the back wall came up, revealing an infinite foggy abyss. The slight anti-climax was that it remained for the rest of the performance; the novelty definitely wore off after a while. The only thing that truly grabs your attention is the use of shadows, and James Farncombe’s masterful lighting decorates the otherwise bland set with huge silhouettes. The abundance of red roses in act 1 cut through various shades of brown and beige.
Two ENO debutants top the cast list. Swiss tenor Rolf Romei as Paul was pre-empted by an apology of illness, however his performance didn’t require excuses. The occasional wobbles in his higher register somewhat fed into the role – a man overcome with emotion, losing all control. The complete personification of desperation, Romei’s characterisation was more of a highlight than his voice. Allison Oakes matched him as Marietta, and the voice of Marie. She sang the role with ease but, if I hadn’t read the synopsis, I wouldn’t have guessed that Marietta was a dancer. The starkest contrast was when she dropped from the flies on a (stripper) pole, against the backdrop of a funeral – visual juxtaposition reached new heights. Again, the idea of Marie’s ghost was visually impressive but off-stage Oakes was virtually inaudible. The details, however, cannot be faulted, down to a different surtitle font when Marie sang.
Auden Iversen (Frank) was definitely not the most important character, plot-wise, but his voice stood out. ‘Mein Sehnen, mein Wähnen’ (My longing, my yearning) was hypnotically beautiful. With the baritone framed by a tableau of characters, drunkenly waving their lighters, it felt like a 1950s Coldplay concert.
The Dead City’s first outing at the ENO was a mild success. A few magical moments carried an otherwise unremarkable production.
Delightfully Delusional: The Dead City is Brought to Life
Who knew that a pink umbrella could prove to be such a powerful stage presence? In Artistic Director Annilese Miskimmon’s new production of Eric Wolfgang Korngold’s Die tote Stadt, the depth of human delusion and grief is brought to the forefront of the Coliseum’s stage. Set in an era of post-war sensibilities in Bruges, The Dead City follows widower Paul as he confronts the death of his wife Marie through falling in love – or lust – with her identical match, Marietta which occurs after the loss of the latter’s perfectly pink umbrella.
Miskimmon’s direction immediately creates a visual juxtaposition between the two women that reads like the Madonna-Whore Complex. This leaves Swiss tenor Rolf Romei’s Paul left in the midst of his madness; his voice is given little space to truly shine. Allison Oakes’ ENO debut as Marietta, and as the voice of Marie, is a stunning soprano with just enough stickiness to make the sultry sex appeal of Marietta believable, and her softness for Marie’s vocals further enforces the diametric opposition of both women. Paul is not the important one here, but his beloved women, as he further descends into insanity and debauchery which is gazed upon in horror by the astounding Sarah Connolly as his grounded housekeeper Brigitta. Connolly’s voice is haunting in the echoes of Romei’s performance.
The set itself is set into two spheres, one as Paul’s shrine to Marie – her bedroom in which she died remains untouched as a museum to her golden locks and fair looks, adorned with deep red roses – and of a dead city that is covered with mist. This is the visual contrast of the dullness of Bruges outside that is marred with funeral processions in a dreamlike state. After a strong Act I, the lead into Act II lacks clarity as Paul is boiling with rage attempting to reject Marietta’s ‘temptations’ while the ghost of Marie haunts him, as Imogen Knight’s movement direction causes the characters to stagnate. However, these lulls are saved by ENO Harewood Artist Innocent Masuku’s extraordinary charisma as one of Marietta’s lovers, Gastone. Masuku embraces the stage with a swagger that steals the show in a standout performance as he embodies the contrast between sensibilities and indulgence in Paul’s delusions, taunting him.
Korngold’s score is no easy feat to manage, with its almost cinematic crescendos, but under conductor Kirill Karabits’ watchful eye, the orchestra matches the performers’ voices perfectly. There is a slight battle for power that occurs in Act III as Marie descends above the stage in a glass coffin that mirrors Marietta’s earlier entrance on a lampshade stripper pole – Miskimmon’s Madonna-Whore complex strikes again as The Dead City was brought to life.
ENO’s first production of The Dead City by Jewish composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold is only the third time this opera has ever been staged in the UK. Declared a wunderkind by the likes of Strauss and Puccini, Korngold finished writing The Dead City when he was only 22. So popular were his first two operas (Violanta and The Ring of Polykrates) that German opera houses squabbled over the rights to The Dead City premiere; in the end, Korngold’s third opera received a rare double premiere in both Cologne and Hamburg.
This early rapturous reception did not last, however. Exiled from Nazi-occupied Austria, Korngold found refuge composing music for Hollywood. Though critically acclaimed in the film industry, Korngold’s operatic works have nonetheless remained relatively overlooked. A delight then that Artistic Director Annilese Miskimmon resurrects The Dead City this spring.
The Dead City is a disturbing dramatization of a grief-sick psyche. When Paul (Rolf Romei) meets Marietta (Allison Oakes) – a woman the (alleged) spitting image of his dead wife – his sorrow and lust mingle in an uncomfortable flirtation. Things quickly descend into tortured, surrealist fantasies as unforgiving nuns, cackling nurses, and a clown-faced figure with a black balloon – like Periwise from Stephen King’s IT – traipse through the foggy hallucinations of Paul’s mind.
Despite warnings of recent illness on opening night, Rolf Romei’s frequent high notes were laden with emotion, and his acting rendered sympathetic the shy widower slipping into misogyny and madness. The flirtatious Marietta is a welcome dose of irreverence to contrast the creeping, crawling Paul and their famous love duet, the Lute Song, is performed beautifully. Unfortunately, their chemistry is so unconvincing it borders on the capital A Absurd. Maybe that is why the climax of the story – like something out of a Robert Browning poem – elicited slight laughter from an accidentally tragi-comic one-liner.
Korngold’s score, though well-played, occasionally blended into a violinic mush under conducting (Kirill Karabits) which underemphasised the emotional variance of the music. Peripheral characters Franz (Audun Iverson) and caring housekeeper Brigitta (Sarah Connolly) are both excellently sung however, and the chorus, along with choristers from Finchley Children’s Music Group, are in good form, with some engaging moments of slow-motion choreography.
Besides sombre ceremony, ingenious staging retains interest through an opera which takes place entirely in one room; glass cabinets display the belongings of the dead Marie (Lauren Bridle) like museum exhibits, and extensive wood-panelling evoke the interior of a coffin. Rectangles of light slice across the stage, and various people are bathed in cold pallor or a warming glow; the resulting shadow-play is apt for the drama of the opera hanging between life and death.
ENO’s Dead City is imaginative and ambitious, and I sincerely hope it inspires further Korngold resurrections.
Strange, Scandalous and Sublime
The Dead City, aka Die tote Stadt, comes to London bringing a touch of the strange, scandalous and sacred in its wake. Korngold’s score follows Paul (Rolf Romei), who has been consumed by devotion to his dead wife Marie (Lauren Bridle) until he finds Marietta (Allison Oakes), who bears a striking resemblance to the departed. Despite being written when the composer was twenty-three, the work shows maturity and sincerity about the towering matters of love and death. Overall the production is incredibly strong, but it would be helped ironing out a couple of little hiccups.
Romei brought across the sympathetic madness that entraps Paul perfectly; his agonising journey to banish the ghost of the past is compelling. Bridle also sang very well as our dopplegangeresque Marietta and was very playful on stage, especially during the more rowdy sequences. Sadly the magic that Annilese Miskimmon (Director) worked on our individual cast members, who were all brimming with personality and depth, didn’t translate to the chemistry between our leading pair. However, their singing more than made up for this.
Kirill Karabits does a fantastic job with the orchestra, drawing melancholy, redemption or frenzy from Korngold’s score exactly when needed. The string playing was evocative, the bass section lending a plunging bottom to the music, heightening the drama and letting the dense orchestration wash over us like an ocean.
Brigitta, Paul’s faithful housekeeper (Sarah Connolly DBE), and Franz, a friend and moral support to Paul (Audun Iversen), were both incredibly strong in their roles supporting Paul. Franz, in particular, manages to transform himself into something monstrous during Paul’s fantasy, made even more; we can feel our protagonist’s safety net snap beneath him. Bridle’s haunting voice as Marie would have been very strong if we could have heard her, being inaudible in her dramatic first entrance. The chorus (directed by Avishka Edirisinghe) were fantastic, and their inexorable funeral march in mourning clothes (costume design by Nicky Gillibrand) is a fantastic representation of Paul’s journey with grief.
Miriam Buether (Set Designer) and James Farncombe (Lighting Designer) work terrifically together to produce an entire world with the four walls of Paul’s house—an Art Deco affair, with bare wooden panels that look suspiciously like the inside of a coffin. The large shadows created by stark rays of light are another stroke of genius and give an otherworldly feeling to anything coming or going, adding to the surreal picture of Paul’s life. His living room’s warm glow gives way to sharp white beams and imposing shades as he is consumed by his inner world.
Even Korngold’s Glittering Music Can’t Bring this Dead City to Life
A sullen spirit and a blithe dancer torment a troubled widower in ENO’s new production of The Dead City (‘Die tote Stadt’). All-but-forgotten wunderkind composer, Erich Korngold’s cinematic opera sensationalises a story of lost love that oscillates between heavy, Freudian psychology and irreverent, whimsical, and at times nefarious hallucinations. Korngold’s score is sparkling and performed beautifully, but visually the production fails to match its lustre.
Following last year’s powerful and chilling The Handmaid’s Tale, Annilese Miskimmon (ENO’s Artistic Director) takes on another ambitious and haunting phycological thriller. However, Miskimmon’s white glove approach to Korngold’s celebrated opera is too delicate. It could stand to be messier.
Miskimmon’s approach is utilitarian and clever, but predictable. Zooming in on a static and spotless room in Bruges, we meet Paul mourning at a shrine to his late wife, Marie. When Paul meets Marietta, a woman with a striking resemblance to his lost love, lust muddies Paul’s throbbing grief.
Symbols replace big ideas—a golden braid for loss, an eye-catching magenta umbrella for Paul’s new passion, and bouquet after bouquet of roses that both lie at Marie’s grave and seduce Marietta. Korngold’s expansive story of the mind becomes a claustrophobic domestic drama in widower Paul’s dead flat.
The descent from Paul’s reality into his nightmare make for confusing viewing. Paul’s augmented reality is too close to real life. Miskimmon’s production relies on a handful of stage tricks that delight upon first viewing, but lose momentum when repeated.
Instead, delight emerges from Korngold’s effervescent music. Conductor Kirill Karabits creates memorable moments in the score, heightening emotions and moving effortlessly between intrigue, nostalgia, lust, danger, and remorse. The music leads the drama, proving a prescient precursor to Korngold’s later Academy Award-winning film scores.
The night is at its best with the Lute Song, a back-and-forth ditty over glittering orchestration where we see Paul come to life with the flirtatious Marietta, who he believes to be his recently deceased wife, Marie. Cleverly, Laruen Bridle’s Marie unnervingly floats onstage in a non-singing role that creates a watched tension to Paul and Marietta’s romance in the shadows.
Rolf Romei (Paul) is a wistful tenor in his caramelly upper range, equal parts joyful and sorrowful. Despite recent illness during rehearsals, the only sign of sickness on opening night was Romei’s lovesick characterisation.
Allison Oakes (Marietta) sings a confident and lush soprano that sparkles with personality and inflection. While Oakes’ stiff acting fails to convince of Marietta’s dance, her vocals succeed in seducing.
Dame Sarah Connolly’s steady hand as Brigitta and Audun Iversen’s confident but concerned Frank provide a moral compass to Paul’s unravelling. The chorus are impactful in their presence, but overused. The supporting cast create cobwebs of disconnected emotion that litter every corner of the stage without spinning a golden thread through the story.
In this new Dead City, restraint and perfection eschew emotion. Ideas linger without coming to life. While Korngold’s melodious music is a welcome return to cannon, ENO’s production is a bit too uptight to be human.
Modernity comes alive in The Dead City
I noticed on my first trip to the Royal Opera House that many attendees had pre-ordered cafetieres for the interval. For some, sleepiness is a side effect of the five-hour opera treatment in a dark room. For ENO’s production of Korngold’s The Dead City, however, leave the KeepCup at home. Its composer went on to write Hollywood scores, but this iteration feels more like a TikTok.
Set in Bruges, protagonist Paul has spent years grieving his dead wife, Marie. After encountering her living doppelganger, Marietta, Paul’s surreal dreams make up much of the show. Standalone, the storyline is flimsy, but ENO Artistic Director Annilese Miskimmon injects it with much-needed symbolism. Following her lead, the ramifications of Catholicism’s ancient undercurrents – grief, guilt, restraint – ring through the mind of the emergent individual, as Paul must pick between his spiritual duty to Marie and his material desire for Marietta, who is real yet merely a phantom of his wife.
Tenor Rolf Romei plays Paul, and on opening night apologised that he was feeling unwell – but he didn’t sound or look it. As he arrived, the loudness and urgency of his voice and deportment humorously overshadowed the austere presences of clergyman, Frank, and his housekeeper, Brigitta, sung by Audun Iversen and Sarah Connolly. Romei’s verve was matched only by soprano Allison Oakes, who is both Marietta and Marie’s ghostly voice. Layered over the outdated roles of old European society, Paul and Marietta’s pomp delicately foreshadows the coming hegemony of American individualist values.
As the curtains come up, we see Paul’s shrine to his wife: a pristinely kept room with a couch in the middle and an armchair facing it. (No prizes for getting the reference to another prominent figure in early 20th century Vienna with an interest in the psyche.) As Paul’s delirium starts, this room metamorphoses into a perverse arena where he relives Marie’s death and watches Marietta – now a dominatrix – audition potential lovers.
Set designer, Miriam Buether, and Miskimmon highlight the libretto’s overarching questions around what is real and what is not, with the boundary between the two slowly disintegrating. Paul’s room only occupies about three quarters of the stage, with a border and sloped surfaces evoking a cinema. The prominence of silhouettes, projections and shadows is subtle but also impossible to ignore – in one stroke of genius, Marie’s lute is recast as a gramophone record.
Korngold’s music, conducted by Kirill Karabits, adeptly jumps between heady joy and grave sobriety. The synthesis of music and action portends the unity we now expect in film scores. In conjunction with Romei’s and Oakes’s Disney-ish, showbizzy vigour, this makes The Dead City an evening of nonstop stimulation.
Korngold imagined Bruges as a place loomed over by the long shadow of its medieval heyday. Miskimmon contrasts this sanctuary of tradition with Paul and Marietta: self-interested, modern individuals. While Bruges is haunted by its past, The Dead City is dogged beautifully by the spectres of both Korngold’s Hollywood future and the addictive videos of today.
Death, Delusions & The Dead City.
Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt (The Dead City) set in 1920s Bruges, is a must see if you enjoy good music and a stunning set. Korngold, a masterful composer and a man way ahead of his time -a child prodigy- combines the styles/genres of classical opera and Hollywood glitz and glamour at the ripe age of 23. Annilese Miskimmon ensured that from start to finish the opera was a haunting exploration of delusions, obsession, and guilt.
The Dead City tells us the story of Paul (Rolf Romei) who is infatuated with his dead wife, retreating into a delusional world where he imagines Marietta, played by the incredible Alison Oakes, is his late wife. As I took my seat, I was immediately struck by the beautiful set design by the spectacular Miriam Buether. An abundance of red roses adorned the stage, a stunning wedding dress was prominently displayed in a lit glass cabinet, and two gleaming chandeliers hung overhead. Everything was dapper and immaculate, perfectly setting the scene for the events to come. Romei is seen in a smart suit, Oakes in a blue form fitting flowing dress ironically covered in red roses. The soprano’s chandelier entrance with scattered petals added to the dramatic ambiance. The soprano’s entrance from above, dressed in a seductive black silk slip, descending on one of two huge chandeliers as she scattered rose petals, echoing those scattered at her first entrance, was a standout moment. Gillibrand really knows a thing or two about a good outfit.
Kirill Karabits really pulled the opera together with his outstanding orchestra. Music and lights meshed with the emotions conveyed by the singers. James Francombe’s warm, bright yellow lights paired with loving and comforting music. Cold white dimming lights set the tone of forthcoming events. Oakes had a majestic, angelic voice, with incredible projection and feminine tones, perfectly capturing the essence of the character and her role in the story. The balanced singing of the choir was a treat to the ears and the trumpets added a delicious piquancy to the orchestral texture.
Dead city, dead lover, thoughts of the dead overall sum up this opera. “Die Tote Stadt” is a masterful work of art. The talented cast, stunning set design, lighting and perfectly composed music come together to create an unforgettable experience. If you have the opportunity to see this opera, do not hesitate to take it. It is truly a spectacle to behold.
Bedlam in Bruges
Korngold is a composer that seems to be almost synonymous with the golden age of Hollywood and therefore it seems fitting that this opera, composed before he left Europe, is dripping with cinematic melodrama. The Dead City was written in the 1920s but despite being considered a masterpiece has rarely been performed in recent years. This absence from the stage seems perplexing; its interrogation both of loss and toxic obsession remains thoroughly contemporary whilst the music still bewitches through its passionate score.
The success of the performance rests mainly on the shoulders of the tenor Rolf Romei, who makes his ENO debut as the hapless Paul. The role demands both an intensity of vocal performance and a convincing acting display as the character runs the gamut of emotions from sobbing hysteria to murderous intensity and Romei delivers on both counts. Although he came into the performance off the back of illness, and as a result struggles with some of the higher notes, he successfully provides a layered vocal display particularly in the heart wrenching finale. His job is difficult as often he needs to dominate emotionally whilst being smaller than the powerful soprano Allison Oakes as Mariette, the doppelganger of Paul’s deceased wife Marie. It is necessary for her performance to physically dominate the stage, and as the object of Paul’s obsessive desires she joyously conveys a free-spirited abandon that torments and tempts him in equal measure.
We journey through his hallucinations ourselves, from his mausoleum of a Bruges apartment to a boisterous party and a funeral procession, the ENO stage fantastically transformed to a smoky nightmare. This is a production that is full of sometimes heavy handed metaphors, the caged dress and braid of hair, the lowered coffin and the reams of roses all evoke a powerful sense of melancholy but a sense of genuine drama is lacking. Perhaps this is due to the fantastical nature of the hallucinations, but it is clear that we are party to Paul’s own neuroses and paranoias and because of this we are left with a distinct lack of sympathy on his part. This can lead to a lack of the required emotion at certain points, where the party scene is seemingly supposed to provide a sense of pathos for Paul’s suffering we are instead left feeling bemused at his impotent jealousy. The opera does seem to sag in this middle section, we are left waiting too long for the conclusion of this obvious dream sequence and a lot of the intended sympathy and emotion is lost.
However, when we are brought back to Bruges, his reckoning with the past and his desire to move on is touching and feels earned. This is a poignant and beautiful tale that the ENO tackles extravagantly and admirably but may have been more successful if approached with more subtlety.
The Dead City – a sensual, queasy evening
It’s the classic tale of boy meets girl. The sensual Marietta reminds Paul of his dead wife Marie, he takes her back to his eerie temple of memories and strangles her with Marie’s hair. Or does he?
Annelise Miskimmon’s new production of Erich Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt, in a clean translation by Kelley Rourke, is an immersive fever-dream of a show. Korngold, living in a Vienna seized by Freud’s theories on psychoanalysis, has been done justice in an opera that sees its protagonist Paul trapped in his grief, caught in increasingly horrible visions as he loses his grip on reality.
Miriam Buether’s stylish staging presents a mid-century room with the hospital death bed of Paul’s wife Marie, her glittering evening dress and braid of blonde hair eerily suspending in glass cabinets as a constant reminder of his loss.
It’s a resplendent production. The shifting set gives way to funeral processions, the streets of the eponymous Bruges, misty trees like a Magritte painting. Light is used effectively to change the atmosphere of the scenes: a warm glow for Marietta’s sexuality as she captures Paul’s attention; chiaroscuro as Marie’s spectre haunts him.
The creative team have staged a complex dreamscape for Paul’s grief and guilt. A mime holding a black balloon passes across the stage, religious festivals crowd Paul’s house, choirboys spill from the fireplace holding bright red roses.
As Paul anguishes over Marie, played silently by the actor Lauren Bridle, a candelabra descends over the temple of memories, revealing a scantily-clad Marietta dancing on high on a pole. Later, when Marietta – still scantily clad – seduces and taunts Paul, Marie is lowered on her coffin by ropes from the ceiling, hanging ethereally over the action.
It’s a visually striking piece, but something was lacking between Rolf Romei’s Paul and Allison Oakes’ Marietta. Outside of the musical box, I’m not sure I was convinced by either their romantic or sexual chemistry, and it didn’t help that Marietta and Marie looked nothing alike.
While conductor Karill Karabits allowed the orchestra to revel in the lavish Hollywood-esque soars of the score, it frequently overpowered the two, causing important moments of stillness to be lost. As if this and the notoriously difficult roles of the two protagonists weren’t enough of a challenge, there was a cold going around the cast.
This might account for some inadvertent vocal softness in Romei, which could also feasibly pass as Paul’s emotional turmoil, and a few falters in Oakes’ upper notes, and they largely handled the punishing range leaps with flair. However, the weaknesses were noticeable.
A strong chorus supports the pair, and Rhian Lois and Claire Presland steal scenes as lascivious dancers in nurse uniforms. Dame Sarah Connolly sings Paul’s faithful and sceptical maid Brigitta with typical thoughtfulness and verve.
In its ENO debut, this production of The Dead City is artfully unsettling, morbid and sumptuous. What it lacks in musical balance, it makes up for in the visuals.
Neither corny nor gold
If to be in a brown study is to look thoughtful, then the protagonist of ENO’s new production: ‘The Dead City’ is an exceptionally thoughtful man indeed. The only parts of his life not suffused with the colour are the relics of his dead wife.
The Dead city (Die tote Stadt) is Erich Korngold’s 1920 ode to nostalgia. Based on a book by Georges Rodenbach it is considered one of the last great romantic operas. Dead City delves into the mind of Paul, a widower living in Bruges who is mourning his wife Marie. The opera does not have much in the traditional sense of drama with the majority of the action being essentially a dream sequence as Paul wrestles internally between devotion to the dead and his new obsession with the dancer Marietta. Marietta is intended to be a doppelganger for Marie but in this production the two could not look less alike, making Paul come across as obsessive not mournful.
The story’s laser focus on loss is reflected in the score, the emotional tone remains locked in strife and the mists of nostalgia. Expansive chords thoroughly explore Paul’s elegiac wistfulness and evoke a Bruges described by Rodenbach as a ‘soulscape,’ but rarely approach sounds more uplifting than bittersweet. Korngold is often compared to Puccini but he lacks the latter’s striking melodies, more reminiscent of Mahler’s symphonic works.
Designer Miriam Buether has created a Swiss Army Knife set, everything seems to lift up and reveal secrets behind each corner. Unfortunately when you’ve seen the tiny scissors once, the novelty wears off. The initially striking changes soon become repetitive, such as a funeral procession which is doing laps of Paul’s house. The original book and staging have Paul going out into the city of Bruges, a variety which would have been welcome.
Paul is played by dramatic tenor Rolf Romei, the role is a vast sing, Romei rarely if ever left stage. Romei sung beautifully, but missed some of the real gut wrenching sadness. I couldn’t make my mind up if his stage work was deliberately or unintentionally awkward, Romei juts around stage like a Lego man doing the robot, forearms at a steady 60o. Soprano Allison Oakes plays Paul’s new romance, Marietta. After an unsteady start, Oakes soared in this role dominating the stage every time she came on. Her character and voice are the only light in the opera and staging.
At an hour and 40 minutes until the interval, the first part of this performance is a real strain on the buttocks. I struggled to engage with this production (perhaps fortunately given the topic). If this was nostalgia and grief it was like none I have known.
Ghosts and Grief in ‘The Dead City’
ENO’s latest production, “The Dead City”, is a haunting exploration of love, loss and obsession set against the backdrop of a modern-day apartment building. The opera, composed by 23-year old (former child prodigy) Erich Wolfgang Korngold in 1920s Vienna, tells the story of Paul, a man who is riddled with grief and obsessed with his late wife Marie. When he encounters a young woman who bears a striking resemblance to Marie, Paul becomes increasingly consumed by his desire to possess her.
The production, directed by ENO’s own Annilese Miskimmon, was set in a modern-day apartment building with the protagonist Paul living alone in his cluttered apartment, haunted by the memories of his dead wife. The production uses innovative visual effects, such as floating coffins and stripper pole chandeliers, as well as dynamic lighting to create a dreamlike, almost hallucinogenic atmosphere in which the past and present seemed to merge – The staging by Miriam Buether effectively captures the themes of obsession and madness that are central to the opera’s story as the changing set mirrors Paul’s increasing delusion and disconnection from reality.
The role of Paul was played by the tenor, Rolf Romei, who gave an admirable vocal performance given that he was recovering from illness and managed to capture the character’s deep sense of loss and loneliness. The role of Marietta, the enigmatic woman who reminds Paul of his dead wife, was played by soprano Allison Oakes. She gave a mesmerising performance, bringing a sensuous and mysterious quality to the character as she eased her way through the glorious aria ‘Marietta’s Song’ and blended perfectly with Romei’s voice in their duet. Oakes also lent her voice for the character of Marie offstage, displaying her vocal expertise as she captured the complex essence of a character who is beyond the grave.
The ENO Orchestra, conducted by Kirill Karabits, never fails to give an exceptional performance and tackled Korngold’s soul-stirring score with vigour. The music was vivid and full of life which, ironically, captured the emotional intensity of the story well despite the opera being centred on death.
However, the production left much to be desired in terms of pacing and character development. While the production boasted an innovative staging and impressive vocal performances by the lead singers, the overall experience felt slow and repetitive at times with scenes dragging on for longer than necessary. Additionally, the supporting characters were underdeveloped, lacking any sort of depth or nuance. As a result, the dramatic tension of the opera was frequently undermined, and the emotional impact of the story was lessened.
Whilst there were moments of beauty and power throughout the production, the lack of strong pacing and character development ultimately prevented the production from achieving its full potential.