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Korngold: Die tote StadtKorngold: Die tote StadtReview of Korngold's The dead city. Composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold was born in the city of Brno in 1897. Though his opera The dead city is usually regarded a masterpiece, it is rarely performed, and the name of the composer is mainly known to the wider audience by his activity in Hollywood, and not by his operas. Korngold’s name is usually referred to as the father of film music; he was the first composer to be awarded an Oscar for the music of a film (The adventures of Robin Hood) in 1938.

Korngold was brought up in Vienna. His father, who was a music critique, began to teach him to play the piano when he was five years old. Later the young boy studied with composer Alexander von Zemlinsky. Gustav Mahler called him a musical genius, and the young man had his first stage-work, a ballet called Der Schneemann (The snowman) premiered in Vienna already in 1910. He composed his first orchestral work at the age of 14. His first one-act operas – Der Ring des Polykrates (The Ring of Polykrates) and Violanta – were first performed in Munich, under the baton of Bruno Walter.

At the time of the premiere of his most successful opera, The dead city in 1920, the composer was still only 23 years old.

The first performance of his fourth opera, Das Wunder der Heliane was in 1927, and the composer himself regarded it his most important work.

Meanwhile Korngold conducted and also taught composition in Vienna. In 1929 he emigrated to America, where he started to work for film studios. In the following years he became the number one film composer of Hollywood; he is regarded one of the creators of the so-called ’Hollywood sound’.

However, he did not completely abandoned the stage; his opera Kathrin was premiered in 1939. In those days he could still go home to Austria. But as a Jew, after the Anschluss, he could not return, and had to stay in America. ("We thought of ourselves as Viennese; Hitler made us Jewish." - said Korngold later.)

After World War II he became more and more fed up with Hollywood and wanted to compose music only for the concert halls and the stage again. He returned to Vienna in 1949, where his popularity was nevertheless on the wane: his earlier works were not performed any more, and his new pieces got a cold reception.

Korngold died in 1957 in Hollywood at the age of sixty. At that time he was working on his second symphony and his sixth opera.


His three-act opera The dead city presented now at the Opera Festival, was premiered with great success on the 4th of December, 1920. In those days both Richard Strauss and Giacomo Puccini spoke highly of the young genius, the latter called Korngold the greatest hope of German music. The enormous popularity of the young composer is clearly indicated by the fact, that his new opera had two world premieres on the same day, one in Hamburg and another in Cologne. In the former city Marietta was interpreted by star soprano Maria Jeritza (Korngold himself was also present at the performance), and in the latter the conductor was Otto Klemperer. For the audience in the years after World War I, the story of the piece – in which the main character mourns for his dead love – was sadly topical.

Korngold: Die tote StadtKorngold: Die tote StadtThe dead city was then presented all over the world; it was staged in Prague, Zurich, Berlin, Antwerpen and the Metropolitan in New York. The Nazi regime later banned it, but by then it was also out of the repertoire elsewhere. Korngold’s late Romantic music, which had been regarded progressive two or three decades earlier, was now reckoned conservative and outdated by the audience.

The rediscovery of the piece started in 2004, when the Salzburg Festival revived it. Since then The dead city has been performed more often again, in 2009 it was presented by the Royal Opera House of London, as well.

Though some excerpts of the work were already recorded in the 1920s (with Lotte Lehmann and Richard Tauber, among others), and we also have a radio broadcast from 1952 (with Fritz Lehmann conducting), the first complete studio recording was released only in 1975. Here the leading parts were sung by Carol Neblett and René Kollo, the conductor was Erich Leinsdorf.

In Hungary the first performance of The dead city was in 2012 at Csokonai Theatre of Debrecen, the company of which later also brought it to Budapest, to the Festival Theatre of the Palace of Arts. Now, at the Miskolc Opera Festival it was presented again in the guest performance of Csokonai Theatre of Debrecen, this time with the Miskolc Symphony Orchestra.


The librettist of The dead city is Paul Schott, but it is a collective pseudonym for the composer and his father, who wrote the libretto together. (’Paul’ is the name of the protagonist of the opera, and ’Schott’ refers to the composer’s publisher.)

The libretto is based on Georges Rodenbach’s 1892 novel Bruges-la-Morte, which is regarded as the archetypal symbolist novel. (It is interesting that this was the first work of fiction to be illustrated with photos.)

The story takes place at the end of the 19th century in Bruges.

Paul lives together with his faithful housekeeper among the keepsakes from his wife, Marie, who died young some years ago. In the house he made a real sanctum with memories for his dead wife, where he keeps pictures, souvenirs, a painting and a lock of Marie’s hair.

Paul is found confused by his friend, Frank, who has arrived to Bruges. Paul tells Frank that he has met a woman, a dancer called Marietta, who bears a striking resemblance to Marie. Soon the woman visits Paul in his house. She completely charms the man, but the cheery and slightly frivolous woman is also interested in Paul. The man who becomes enraptured seeing this resemblance, even puts Marie’s scarf around the woman’s neck; from then on dream and reality get confused in Paul’s mind.

In his visions he can sometimes see her ghost haunting, another time he is talking with Marietta (both roles are played by the same female singer). In his lucid moments Paul feels guilty and is torn between his loyalty to Marie and his ’new’ love. He is attracted to and repulsed by Marietta at the same time.

His friend, Frank appears in front of him, who tells Paul that he was also seduced by Marietta. They are not friends anymore. Because of Paul’s infidelity, Brigitta, the housekeeper also leaves the man.

Korngold: Die tote StadtKorngold: Die tote StadtMarietta and her happy company are approaching in the street. They are singing, having fun, and then rehearsing a scene from Robert the Devil (we are talking about Meyerbeer’s opera Robert le Diable, and in the story Marietta also has a part in it, as a dancer). During the resurrection theme the sound of an organ can be heard from a nearby cathedral, and the bells begin to ring. When Marietta rises from the coffin, playing the ’resurrection’, Paul – who has been watching them secretly – rushes forward outraged. He and Marietta stay there alone, and Paul tells the woman, that he only loved his dead wife in her. Marietta, whose pride has been hurt, gets even more furious, and in the end, once again, Paul cannot resist the temptation. 

They already live together. One morning Paul finds Marietta in his wife’s room, standing in a victorious pose in front of her ’rival’s’ image. There is a Holy procession going through the streets, which makes a deep impression on the religious Paul. Marietta ridicules and provokes the man, then picks up mockingly Marie’s lock of hair just noticed by her. Paul completely loses his mind, pushes Marietta to the ground and strangles her with the lock of hair. ’Now she is exactly like her – Marie!’ - he shouts. 

Paul wakes up and notices the lock of hair, which is untouched. The vision is over. His housekeeper, Brigitta announces that Marietta is back (because the woman was really in Paul’s house after they had met): she left here her unbrella and the roses she got. Marietta is coming in curiously, but as Paul is only staring into the air silently, she turns back and leaves the room. Frank also arrives and is looking searchingly at his friend. Paul is departing bitterly, to leave Bruge, the dead city forever.


The dead city, this gloomy, somber work is about evanescence and grief on the one hand, and about the relationship between man and woman on the other. It is about love, and intensified lust and passion, which can even destroy.

On the surface the story is uneventful. However, the real action takes place in a psychological realm, in Paul’s mind. The man lives in the city of Bruges, but his wandering in this foggy, ’dead’ city symbolizes the world of the events going on in his soul. He holds inner dialogues with Marie and himself, but in his outer dialogues he does not apprehend reality, either. The dead city is a psychological drama (and as such, it is a big challenge for a composer). Paul does not simply mourn, he is a maniac, who goes mad by the pain: he is a pathological case, who hallucinates, and cannot distinguish between dreams and reality anymore.

It is exactly the accessible woman, Marietta, who makes Paul realize, that Marie is beyond his reach, and this is the contradiction, which breaks down the man for good.


Though the libretto of the opera more or less follows the story of the original work, it ends in a different way. In the novel the protagonist does kill the woman, but in the opera he only dreams it. In the original work there is a tragedy – a murder – happening, but in the version set to music it fails to happen.

The question arises as to why the two librettists – Korngold and his father – changed the end of the original work. I do not know the real reason, and of course, it is easy to speak ironically of Korngold’s ’Hollywood-like temperament’, which makes a happy end instead of a tragic end at all events – one can often read this opinion about The dead city -, but I do not think this is the case. Because there is no happy end, the conclusion of the opera is not even melancholic, let alone happy. On the contrary, it is really dramatic. The murder – however tragic – is a kind of release for Paul after all, a sort of a completion or terminal point of the agony and the struggle of a sick man. But by not letting it happen, the tension still remains, and the end of the opera does not give any solution. Paul may have recovered, but he will never be happy, and will carry the burden – the loss of his wife – until the end of his life. For me his pained resignation, the way how he walks out slowly from his room – and his life till then - at the end of the opera, does not show that he is a man starting a new life, but that he is someone who is a shadow of his former self. Yes, one should ’let go of the dead’, the grief is over, but I do not agree at all with those who say it is a happy end. There is no catharsis, but there remains the emptiness caused by the loss of Marie, and the distress, the burnout, the dispair. Maybe this ending is not so manifestly dramatic and tragic, but it is just as dismal and sad. 

Korngold: Die tote StadtKorngold: Die tote StadtOf course, it is possible to perform the finale showing Paul walking out of the stage with a jovial smile, upon the armes of his friend – I have already seen a performance like this -, and the audience heaves a sigh of relief, saying: ’it was only a bad dream!’. Fortunately, the protagonist of the performance now, Robert Dean Smith did not choose this kind of idiotic conclusion. The way, how he left the city, did not set our mind at rest at all. 

Let me mention one more performance as an example. It is the production of the opera house of Berlin from 1983 – released on DVD, but also available on YouTube – in the direction of Götz Friedrich, with James King in the role of Paul. During the last beats of the music Paul sits back in his chair, takes out a gun, pulls the trigger, and begins to stare blankly at the gun. Not really a happy end, and I am convinced that this interpretation is much closer to the original intention of the authors. 


The stage director of the performance now was Vlad Troitsky – also the founder and the leader of the Contemporary Art Centre of Kiev – who had his first direction in this genre. (He has worked in Hungary before, directing prosaic works.)

Troitsky knows exactly, what this opera is about, and he could also tell us what he thinks about it. His direction was well-considered and consistent.

Unusually, the members of the orchestra were sitting on the stage, at the back of it, and on a balcony, which was also part of the scenery (setting: Dmitri Kostuminsky). Though this arrangement – maybe exactly because of its unusualness – was impressive, the real reason to make it was not dramatic or aesthetic in nature, but much more workaday: there would simply not be enough space for the huge orchestra of The dead city in the orchestra pit of a small theatre, not even of a middle-sized one. However, this arrangement made things warm for the singers. As the conductor was behind them, they could only watch him on the monitors placed at the front of the stage, but they usually did it imperceptibly, or at least not markedly for us.

On the stage a cemetery unfolds itself before us, yet it is not only a cemetery. We can see the same graves, crosses and coffins, when we are in Paul’s room or in the street. On the right side of the stage there are furnitures, a coffee table, the sanctum made for the memory of Marie, but there are everyday objects on the top of the coffins, too, for example a tea set. The realistic space, that is, the articles for personal use, and the room itself are not seperated physically from the cemetery, what is more, they melt into the city, the dilapidated houses of which are illustrated by sets and mock-ups. On the walls there are pictures projected; sometimes we can see the view of the city, another time only the grey, sullen walls, which occassionally become colored, according to the protagonist’s state of mind. In the ’room’ there is a life-sized painting of Marie, which is also changing (because different pictures are projected on it). Of course, the bizarre scenery of the dead city is a metaphor, it is the scene of Paul’s grief, his inner world. Two worlds fuse here, as Paul himself lives in two worlds: in reality and in his fantasy.

To stage the conversations and the monologues dominating the action is a difficult task for the director, even if the music is sweeping and dynamical. But Troitsky made sure that there is always an action on the stage: for example, there are several separate scenes of the dancers and the pantomime figures going on at the back; not wantonly, of course, but illustrating the mystical atmosphere of the dead city and the message of the characters.

It is to the credit of Korngold’s good sense of drama that in the second act he „pardons the director”. It is then that a scene takes place in the open air, where Marietta and her company are rehearsing Robert the Devil. The bizarre, grotesque picture turned out to be quite spectacular, thanks to the acting skills of the singers and the impressive choreography in this multi-role scene.

fesztnap 14 halott varos gms 9The moves and the gestures of the characters were genuine throughout. I do not know if this unaffected acting followed from the subject and the dramaturgy of the piece, or rather, it was the result of the stage-director’s persuasiveness, but there was no sign of that artificially theatrical acting, so typical of several performances on opera stages, and this statement is true for the protagonists and the minor characters, as well.

However, I did not really understand the role of the mount put on the right side of the stage. Paul often climbed up onto this unstable iron structure, singing there his monologues, what is more, his duet with Marietta at the end of Act II.

The characters were in period dresses (costume: Róza Bánki). The men were wearing suits, and Marietta was wearing a stylish dress, which was snow-white at the beginning, when Paul saw the woman for the first time, and blood-red in the last act. Marietta’s and the ladies’ hat creations, appearing in the Robert the Devil scene, were impressive, and the dresses of the dancers were colorful, multifarious, sometimes shocking.


In Korngold’s music it is mainly the influence of Puccini and Richard Strauss that can be noticed. As conductor Balázs Kocsár said: ’The dead city is like a late Puccini-opera orchestrated by Richard Strauss.’ A thick orchestration with rich colours and harmonies and a large orhestral sound are combined here amazingly with Wagnerian recitatives and fine melodies built on the tradition of bel canto. This complex music, with its remarkably ambitious libretto is almost inconceivable at first hearing. It is full of tension, and this tension is maintained by the composer throughout the whole work. The power of this music to create atmosphere and its psychological characterization is impressive, the score is composed masterfully. The black, mystifying, sensual music of The dead city is truly Romantic, avoiding sentimentalism with a good taste.

The main music motive is first heard unfolding at the end of the first act, in Marietta’s beautiful aria, which continues in the form of her duet with Paul, then returns in Paul’s aria again at the very end of the opera. This unearthly melody is often performed in concerts and recital albums, as Marietta’s or Paul’s aria. (Though there are several famous recordings, I am most impressed by Elisabeth Schwarzkopf’s and Rudolf Schock’s interpretation; those just familiarizing themselves with this opera, should listen to the arias with these performers first.)

Performing this work is a huge task for the orchestra. In Hungary the piece was first performed some years ago by the orchestra of Csokonai Theatre of Debrecen, but they could not come now, so this time it was the Symphony Orchestra of Miskolc who had to learn this work. It must have been difficult for them, but with the leading of conductor Balázs Kocsár they did an excellent job. The may not have played perfectly, but the smaller imperfections were scarcely distinguishable for the audience, what is more: in spite of its obviously intense concentration the orchestra most of the time did not only interpretate the piece in an appropriate concord, but they were playing expressively, revealing also the beauty of the details of this exceptionally complex score. (The conductor told me the following about it after the performance: for the musicians to play Korngold’s score is not only a difficult but an unusual task, too, because certain notes are only marked roughly. That is, they should be played approximately, or rather, should be felt only… However, classical musicians rarely meet a score of this kind, and when they really try to play the parts mentioned exactly how they are written down, they make things difficult for themselves. It is something like putting down the score of a jazz work improvisation, and trying to play it note by note.)


The parts of the two main characters are very demanding and a big challenge for the tenor and the soprano. The ideal singer to interpret Paul’s part should be at home in Wagner’s and Strauss’ music, as well, and should possess a powerful Heldentenor voice, which is dark enough, but can also be convincing in the more lyrical scenes. Paul is almost all the time present, moreover, he has to sing a very high tessitura. Robert Dean Smith does have these qualities, and his acting was even more impressive. Evidently he became one with his role; he could picture Paul’s inner world and all the subtle phases going on in his soul genuinly. The voice may not soar as it did 2 or 3 decades ago (the singer is almost sixty), so in the upper register he was sometimes forcing a little bit, but his interpretation was well worked-out and spirited, not disappointing the audience being anxious to hear the world famous star.

Korngold: Die tote StadtKorngold: Die tote StadtIt is similarly a big challenge for the soprano to sing Marietta’s role (and Marie’s, as she is sung by the same singer). She also needs dramatic force and lightness at the same time, and fine acting skills. Éva Bátori was singing superbly, although I did not agree with her rendition in every respect. Her Marietta was singing with a burning passion almost all along, presenting to us the drama of an amorous, struggling woman from the beginning. But Marietta is a vivacious, flirtatious dancer, who really becomes interested in Paul, but it is as much as curiosity and vanity, which makes her to win the man’s heart. In my opinion, in the closing scene of the second act, during the great, erotic duet we should see a seductive woman full of passion, and not someone yet, who is suffering and is desperately in love. However, Éva Bátori’s interpretation was different. (I think the tragic lover is Paul, and not Marietta.) This way the singer also made things more difficult for herself, as she had to sing both the second and the third act with full power. (Thanks to her vocal qualities, she could stand it well, but I am not sure it would have been necessary.) Had she reserved the dramatic climax for the third act – when Marietta, who is already desperately attached to Paul, struggles hopelessly against the memory of the dead wife, and finally becomes the victim of a murder -, we could have seen a more nuanced interpretation.

As far as the minor roles are concerned: Máté Fülep was singing the role of Frank - Paul’s friend - distinctly, genuinely and in good style (he also played Fritz, the Pierrot in the Robert the Devil scene of Act II). Tamás Cselóczki’s acting in the scene mentioned (in the role of Gaston, the dancer and Victorin, the stage-director) made the performance more colourful, and here he had good partners in the person of Melinda Balla (Juliette, dancer), Ágnes Rendes (Lucienne, dancer) and Sándor Böjte (Count Albert). Veronika Dobi Kiss also played expertly Brigitta, Paul’s housekeeper.

After watching The dead city most people probably think, that it is hard to understand, why this opera is not on the repertoire of the theatres more often. As I already mentioned in the first part of this review, Korngold himself did not regard The dead city his most important work, but his other opera Das Wunder der Heliane written some years later. Conductor Gergely Kesselyák, the director of the Miskolc Opera Festival told Operaportal in his interview last year, that he is planning to stage Das Wunder der Heliane, too. I hope, that it will be realized in the near future.

Balázs Csák



21 June, 2014, Miskolc Grand Theatre – Miskolc Opera Festival

Erich Wolfgang Korngold:

The dead city

Opera in two acts, in German

Libretto written by Paul Schott, based on G. Rodenbach’s novel „Bruges la morte”.

Settings: Dmitri Kostuminsky

Costumes: Róza Bánki

Leader of the children’s choir: József Nemes

Chorus master: Péter Gyülvészi

Conductor: Balázs Kocsár

Stage director: Vlad Troitsky


Paul - Robert Dean Smith

Marietta, dancer and Marie, the ghost of Paul’s dead wife – Éva Bátori

Frank, Paul’s friend and Fritz, the Pierrot – Máté Fülep

Brigitta, Paul’s housekeeper – Veronika Dobi Kiss

Juliette, dancer – Melinda Balla

Lucienne, dancer – Ágnes Rendes

Gaston, dancer and Victorin, the stage-director – Tamás Cselóczki

Count Albert – Sándor Böjte

Actors and actresses – Árpád Bakota, István Papp, Gergely Máté Kiss, János Mercs, Kata Szűcs, Noémi Szalma

With the Choir of the Csokonai Theatre, Debrecen, the Miskolc Symphony Orhestra and the Lautitia children’s choir.




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