They called Erich Korngold “the Viennese Puccini” and his steamy psychodrama Die tote Stadt (“The Dead City”) was the operatic smash-hit of the 1920s
But that was before the Nazis drove him to Hollywood. There’s a element of silver screen wizardry about Willy Decker’s staging – staggeringly the first ever at the Royal Opera House – and when the mysterious dancer, Marietta, sweeps into the reclusive widower Paul’s life, awakening thoughts that his departed wife Marie might somehow be resurrected, the vivacious Nadja Michael has the confident air of a glamorous Hollywood starlet ripe for recognition.
But, of course, she is Paul’s worst nightmare and as his dark night of the soul sinks ever deeper into chaos and hallucination Decker quite literally holds up a mirror to his denial and lets us into the reality – that this is an opera about letting go. Paul’s refusal to acknowledge his beloved wife’s death has opened the door of his heart to an imposter and at the close of act two in one of the evening’s most dramatic visual coups Decker has the wife’s portrait replicate over and over in the darkness as Marietta’s seduction moves into top gear. “I want you in the dead woman’s house”, she screams, and if you had any doubt that she’s spoiling for a fight with her dead rival, you don’t now. Phew, what a scorcher.
And there’s more. Paul keeps his dead wife’s hair in a glass case like a holy relic – which can’t be healthy, can it? – so you can imagine what a field day Decker has with the religious symbolism; all that Catholic guilt simmering away. A troupe of nuns become almost indistinguishable from Marietta’s commedia dell’arte performers (echoes of Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos) and there are at least two crucifixions – both of the women in Paul’s life. Freud would have had something to say about that.
But at least Decker is not shy of the issues and he and his designer Wolfgang Gussmann are always mindful of the opera’s queasy hallucinations, right down to the shifting walls and ceiling of Paul’s apartment. But the biggest nightmare of all (and certainly one reason for the opera’s neglect) is the inhuman difficulty of the two leading roles. Paul – the tenor role – is long and heroic with an impossibly high and demanding tessitura. Stephen Gould should receive some kind of award for stamina and endurance. He even managed a few beautiful phrases.
Nadja Michael was more of a problem. She is a compelling stage animal with a size-O allure and her super-model looks certainly lend themselves to spending most of the opera with a shaved head. But this is a pushed or “manufactured” soprano voice (she was a mezzo) without the essential “spin” at the top, and as early as her gorgeous (and justly celebrated) “Lute Song” she was in trouble, hopelessly compromised by poor support and sour intonation. Gerald Finley (Frank/Fritz) could teach her a thing or two about grateful legato.
But the evening is really all about the 23-year old Korngold’s prodigious gifts and a score which in itself is iridescent with desire. Ingo Metzmacher and the heavily augmented Royal Opera Orchestra despatched it with almost indecent relish. A cold shower beckons, I think.