The Dead City (Die tote Stadt) by Erich Korngold at The London Coliseum.
Reviewed by John O’Brien
In a week when Sir David Hare bemoaned the domination of the West End by ubiquitous musicals, I recommend he go see “The Dead City”. This opera (a musical in all but name?) is drama, narrative, music, singing, visually stunning sets and subtle lighting all in one total work of art that is nothing less than breathtaking. Korngold breaks down all the so called barriers between high art and popular art, classical and popular music, straight drama and musical drama, to create an experience that transcends all the cliches and creates an exhilarating, enthralling and entertaining evening. There is nothing remotely like it anywhere else. First performed in 1920 this is the first ever production by English National Opera at the Coliseum. Make the most of this opportunity to see a cult classic. Hitchcock fans will recognise the film “Vertigo,” that’s because Hitchcock based it on The Dead City.
Erich Amadeus Korngold was a child prodigy whose pushy father wanted him to be another Mozart – hence his middle name. Aged nine he played his own compositions to Mahler and had his ballet “The Snowman” performed when he was eleven. He wrote his first opera aged 17 and his masterpiece “The Dead City” aged 19. He was a product of the Vienna of the early 1900s along with Freud, Wittgenstein and Klimt. The Nazis banned “The Dead City” and Korngold, like so many Jewish geniuses fled to America. Here he became the go-to guy whenever the Hollywood studios needed a film score. So although you’ve probably never heard the name Korngold you will be familiar with his wonderful work for such films as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex,” “The Sea Hawk” and “The Adventures of Robin Hood”. Korngold died of a brain haemorrhage in 1957 aged 60.
Director Annilese Miskimmon has created a brilliant production which brings “The Dead City” to life (pun intended). Clearly obsessed with this opera she has thought about every single detail and it shows. The sets are a visual treat in themselves. The “living room “ which provides the space for the claustrophobic action of “The Dead City” is framed like a Magritte painting with a distorted ceiling which creates a tomb like enclosure. Inside this room is both an alter and a coffin. So we get a Russian Matryoshka dolls type effect.
The lighting plays more than mere background, it adds greatly to the episodic intensification of the action. In one marvellous scene the chiaroscuro reflection of silhouettes on the wall is reminiscent of the Cabinet of Dr Cailgari (also first shown in 1920). I could go on but I’ll mention just one more to wet your appetite. In the room/tomb which Paul has curated to his dead wife Marie, he has a female mannequin wearing one of her dresses and as a ghostlike Marie walks towards the mannequin, the merger of the real and the fantastic is spellbindingly eerie.
Hollywood producers like Louis B. Mayer knew what they wanted and they wanted Korngold. That’s because his musical ear is second to none. He can find notes and combinations that capture emotions, fears and longings in highly original ways. Throughout the two hours forty minutes never once did I find the score flat or uninteresting. He always finds just the right note to keep the momentum flowing and in Kirill Karabits, this production is in good hands. His conducting is assured, animated and audacious.
“The Dead City” is many things and many layered but one thing that stands out is the eternal love triangle. Paul, the inconsolable widower, his dead wife Marie (kept alive in her alter in his “living room”) and Marietta – the doppelgänger. “The Dead City” brilliantly dramatises the dynamics of the triangle and shows in the most compelling of ways the extraordinary hold it has over our lives. Even in death it still manages to generate jealousy, rage and murderous emotions. The correspondences between the two women are cleverly done. They share the same name for a start, (Marie and Marietta), they both have blond hair and Alison Noakes playing the one also speaks the words of the dead other. It’s a complex and complicating conceit which adds layers of nuance and subtlety to an already complex and compelling work but not, I hasten to add, is it in any way pretentious or unnecessary. It’s all absolutely vital to the plot.
It goes without saying that the singing, acting and performing of Rolf Romei as Paul and Alison Noakes as Marietta is superb.