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Work of the Week – Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Die tote Stadt

On 28 May, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s opera Die tote Stadt will open at Teatro alla Scala in Milan. With musical direction from Alan Gilbert and a cast including Asmik Grigorian as Marietta and Klaus Florian Vogt as Paul, Korngold’s thrilling psychological opera is set to receive a daring production.

The opera, which is based on the novel Bruges-la-morte by Georges Rodenbach, was adapted for its stage setting by Hans Müller, Julius Korngold (Korngold’s father), and the composer himself. It took Korngold four years to complete the work, with first performances taking place simultaneously at the opera houses in Hamburg and Cologne on 4 December 1920. The work was an immediate success and went on to receive performances at the Metropolitan Opera in New York as the first German-language opera after World War I.

Die tote Stadt is a portrayal of Paul who loses connection to reality during his mourning for his wife Marie. Seeing his late wife in a dancer (Marietta), Paul falls in love with her. Despite his new love, Paul’s remains troubled by his grief becoming ever more obsessive with catastrophic consequences.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold: Die tote Stadt – Successful opera of the 1920s

One of the many theatrical aspects of the opera is the inclusion of Meyerbeer’s Robert le Diable within the opera itself. The sequence mirrors Korngold’s own music style which simultaneously uses the very limits of late romanticism in parallel with vivid melodic writing.

Considering, that after his death, Korngold´s life work was reduced to his impressive activities in the film music sector, one has to state, that the same compositional mastery, the same virtuoso orchestration art and the same theatrical feeling, which marks his film music, developed not just in Hollywood, but in his music theatre works already […]. – Maximilian Hagemeyer in a program note for Die tote Stadt

Korngold’s early masterpiece is enjoying a period of immense popularity, alongside the production at La Scala beginning on 28 May, there is a further production currently running at Theater Bremen. On 31, a revival of Die tote Stadt will open at the Semperoper in Dresden, and on 16 June a new production will receive its premiere in Wuppertal. The Bard Music Festival in New York will stage a performance of the opera on 18 August along with the first US performance of Das Wunder der Heliane as part of the festival’s focus on Korngold and his music.


Photo: Teatro alla Scala / Marco Brescia & Rudy Amisano