Music on CD

KORNGOLD: Die tote Stadt Royal Swedish Opera and Chorus / Leif Segerstam Naxos 8 660060-1; two CDs

Die tote Stadt is an opera about grieving, about obsession, about the thin grey line that separates fantasy from a darker reality. Erich Korngold was just about old enough to know the difference. He was barely 20 when he began work on it. That, in itself, is amazing. Not so much from a technical point of view (he was already more than well equipped to tell tall tales in the orchestra and his vocal lines were already well versed in the seductive ways of Strauss and others), but from the point of view of spirit, atmosphere. This "dead city", where the bells - "confessors cast in bronze" - ring in occlusive shadows and the mighty organ grimly portends Andrew Lloyd Webber, should be corny (no pun intended) but somehow isn't (the courage of conviction triumphant again). The allusions are many, as in "operas we have known and loved": Marietta and her commedia dance troupe come out sparkling like the Zerbinetta sub-plot of Ariadne, and the religious procession in Act 3 is Turandot colliding with the vassals from Gotterdammerung. But the dreamscape is entirely Korngold's own. He would have a monopoly on dreams in Hollywood. His bejewelled orchestra (celesta and piano glimmering distinctively) would come in handy. The conductor here, Leif Segerstam, lends a composerly ear to such characteristics, though his style is somewhat cramped by the inevitable drawbacks of a live recording (the acoustical confines of the opera house pit are evident here).

Organ and Notre Dame-style bells overwhelm the sensational Act 2 prelude, while the orchestra of the Royal Swedish Opera is not, it has to be said, of the very front rank. But Korngold's opulence will out and, as a way in to this remarkably ripe and exotic confection at a super-bargain price, you could do a whole lot worse. The all-Swedish principals are modestly heroic. Thomas Sunnegardh sounds a little like a young James King and, despite the dryish timbre and a few too many inelegant phrases (it's a bit of a bray at times - especially as he grows tired towards the close), he conveys an often inspiring ardour. Katarina Dalayman (Marietta and Marie - the living and the dead - and she has enough voice for both) is no Karita Mattila (now there's someone who should sing the role) but she assumes the vocal ascendancy - Marietta's fabulous "Lute Song", for instance - in some style.

One quibble. What possible use is a German-only libretto to the uninitiated? If Naxos are banking on a future for their "Opera Classics" series, this is one corner they cannot cut. I'd still pay a little extra for the one other recording of the piece, conducted by Erich Leinsdorf and more classily sung (on BMG), but you have to applaud Naxos for their enterprise. And, of course, Korngold for his. With "Pierrot's Song" in Act 2 (and what a peach of a number that is), it's as if he is momentarily caught between the nostalgia of operetta and the aspirations of opera. And who's to say where he'll go next. Edward Seckerson

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